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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

ISO The Real Buddha & Jesus

Earlier I posted about reading The Gospel of Jesus. This book sought to reconstruct what Jesus probably actually said, as opposed to what's been heaped onto him and twisted around since his time (much of this perversion being found in the Bible itself). It seems Jesus' original teachings were quite reasonable and surprisingly fresh and enlightening in many ways.

Lately, after reading The Dharma of Star Wars, I've been reading about Buddhism for purposes of comparing how it addresses the passions with how Stoic philosophy handles them. In doing so, I am continuing to find that just about everything I've ever been told about Buddhism is wrong.

What's most interesting is how it was wrong. Having grown up in a Christian culture, it seems that every concept in Buddhism presented to me was summed up with a caricature that made use of Christian models of reality, and then twisted them in a simplistic way.

I was therefore surprised to find that some takes on reincarnation don't involve souls moving between bodies. Some concepts of Karma involve more Natural conceptions of cause-and-effect, rather than a cosmic supernatural bookkeeping system of some sort. Likewise, "Nirvana" is not simply another name for "Heaven", but an entirely different concept altogether.

However, it all makes sense to me now that this is how Christians might misunderstand these things. It reminds me of the common Christian misunderstanding about Humanism, which assumes that other philosophies have a similar structure to Christianity and suggests that Humanists "worship humans". (note: I'm sure other religions and traditions have similar misunderstandings about Christianity too)

Fortunately I wasn't quite this ignorant about Buddhism by the time I came to my recent readings, but I was still lacking a lot of key information that I'm happy to have now. As with Jesus, it seems that the original teachings of Siddhartha Guatama (Buddha) were quite pragmatic and down-to-earth. But one must peel away thousands of years of misconception, alteration, and misrepresentations to get at them.

Another interesting thing is that, in both the cases of Christianity and Buddhism, the perversions took the very same form. In both cases, the words of the teacher were pretty much ignored and in there place was a distracting glorification of the teacher himself. This glorification included thoughts of special powers and abilities, and eventually the good sense of the teacher's words were burried under distracting outside fantasies about the supernatural and the afterlife - all enshrined with various rituals, personalities, and power structures.

Ironically, in both cases the teachers themselves specifically admonished against these things. Buddha was a sort of atheist who would not recommend going to the Brahmins as priests. He had no use for prayer or sacrifices and didn't teach about the universe being infinite (or not) and about the afterlife, because he felt these things were not fundamental to religion. To him salvation was to be found in spiritual self discipline[1]. Jesus, meanwhile, never seemed to claim that he was a half-god or god in human form, or a substitute for sacrificial offerings (this doctrine is basically "Paulianity" and came later). He admonished others who called upon his name but didn't do as he instructed in his teachings[2].

I think I'll continue to try and uncover what Guatama actually taught, and by that I mean even going back to before Theravada Buddhism as much as possible. Then I can come up with a comparison between this, Jesus, Taoism, and Stoicism. There's just too much good stuff there and I'd like to see what I can mine from each in a comprehensive and consistent manner.

[1] A History of the Worlds Religions. By David S. Noss.
[2] The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. By James M. Robinson.


  1. Eckhart Tolle seems to have summarized the essence of both Christianity and Buddhism and dug down to the essential Spiritual Truths in both religions. Both Jesus and Buddha were teaching people to still their minds and go beyond their thoughts to find self evident, subjective truths within themselves. The Buddha had to work for his Enlightenment while Jesus probably spontaneously became Enlightened. Zen Buddhism recognizes these two paths to Nirvana as it were. The problem with religions is that after the Masters die and people begin to forget the oral histories and teachings they begin to write them down. The teachings go beyond the mind and can't be grasped by the mind and must be experienced. Therefore, the teachings point the way to experiencing what Jesus and Buddha discovered for themselves. But mind based followers miss this sublty and through editing, misinterpretations, and politics distortions and errors creep into the teachings. Thus the mind remains in control spiritually speaking. All this is not new news though. Capitalism, Communism and Fascism used Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection for their own economic and political agendas thus spawning variations of Social Darwinism that had disasterous consquences to say the least.

  2. Very interesting John. Thanks for the comments! I'm not sure about "spontaneous enlightenment" and we may not be thinking of the same definition of enlightenment. I totally agree about the distortions you mention and how they are found in modern times as in your Darwin example. But it seems to me there are some "mind-based" qualities to the original teachings as well, so I'm not sure that the students doing the writing were distorting things only (or even mostly) because of "mind-thinking". I will have to learn more on this though, I could very well be wrong of course. Thanks for the info!

  3. I too am searching for the early Pre-Theravada teachings of Buddha.

    My motivation stems from an interesting challenge I faced with a local Buddhist group. As an aspiring member, I asked for books or materials that would deepen my understanding of their beliefs before committing myself to becoming a member. The leader made it very clear that they would provide answers to any questions I had, and not to research Buddhism on my own. The message he conveyed was clear, threatening, and very defensive.

    Since then, I have found how out-of-step they were with the basic precepts of Buddhism, regardless of which school one examines. Much to my delight, the closer I come to the original teachings, the more Buddha's precepts resonate with me.

    Good luck and be sure to share any resources you find that are particularly helpful.

  4. That I shall, Hwrhoades!

    That's very interesting about your experience. I am planning on taking my first visit to a Buddhist temple sometime after the holidays. There are several around where I live, but I was confused as to all the various denominations. So, after an extensive searching I managed to figure out the complex web of schools and which historically developed from which. I still am unsure, but I think I've found a "generic" sort of Buddhist temple that serves a variety of schools. I think that might be a good starting place for me.

  5. You said that Jesus never actually claimed to be 1/2 God. First of He is not half God, He is fully God. Second, Jesus claimed more than once to be God. When the Pharisees were questioning him as to whether or not he was the Christ he said, "before Abraham was, I am." They thought that this was blasphemy. Now this might not seem like a big deal to you, but you must understand two things. First it was not blasphemy to claim to be the Christ, which was the question they were asking him. Second, Jesus could have said, before Abraham was, I was, which would habe been the correct way to state it. When Jesus said this statement, he was saying "I AM," which is the name God uses for Himself multiple times in important situations in the Old Testament. Jesus Did claim to be God many more times then this. If Jesus claimed to be God he was not just a good teacher. Another thing about the teachings of Jesus is that he warned us about Hell more than anyone in the New or Old Testament. He was not just telling us to empty our mind to find enlightenment. A religion is as good as its founder. Buddha was a dead beat dad who left his family (wife and kid). Jesus lived a life free of sin (anything evil/ against God's law), so that He could take the sin of all those who so choose to make him Lord of their life.

  6. Thanks for the comments - glad you're reading again :)

    What you've outlined here would be an accurate rendition of events as presented in the Christian bible as it exists today. A more detailed study of how that collection of writings came together shows the additon of many of these stories and sayings long after the fact. Often, these were pagan elements (such as virgin births, the drinking of blood, sacrifices, etc) which were overlaid onto the story to make Christianity more appealing to gentiles of the time. This is the "Paulianity" I referred to before.

    For more information on this, I would take a look at the "Jesus seminar" project, which analyzed the origins of various portions of the writings and how they came together, ranking the various quotations according to likelihood of authenticity.


    As the Wikipedia article points out, evangelicals such as yourself don't accept the conclusions of this research, but I have found it convincing.

  7. I recently got this comment from a member of the International Stoic Forum, Grant Sterling, who gave me permission to post it here...


    Jesus says "I Am" is more than one context. The most famous is in response to the questions of the Sanhedrin, where it does come as a response to the question of whether he is The Christ. With regard to that affirmation:

    a) The Jesus Seminar rejects the entire questioning, and so throws out the I Am line as spurious.

    b) The 'I AM' line is ambiguous, like so many of Jesus' responses on various occasions. Is he merely answering the question in the affirmative, or is he claiming to be God?

    c) In Mark, the answer to 'Are you the Christ, the Son of God?' is "I Am, and you will see the Son of Man [Jesus' favorite title for himself] seated at the Right Hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of Heaven." The Sanhedrin could reasonably have found that to be a blasphemous claim even without the question of identity with God Himself.

    d) In Matthew he doesn't use the 'I Am' here, and in Luke the I Am is contained in a longer _expression which doesn't appear to claim divinity.

    The passage [quoted] is actually from a different conversation, where they are not asking if he is The Christ but whether he has seen Abraham and is greater than he. It occurs in John. In fact, the majority of cases where Jesus seems to come closest to affirming his divinity, as well as the passages where his divinity is most clearly asserted by the 'narrator', come from John. Those who argue against his divinity, including The Jesus Seminar and other scholars as well, argue that John is a later creation which paints a very different picture of Jesus from that painted in the synoptic gospels [Matt, Mark, and Luke], and that this is a distortion of the real Jesus.