Buddhism and Christianity

By Frank F. Ellinwood.


New interest has recently been awakened in old controversies concerning the relations of Christianity and Buddhism. The so-called Theosophists and Esoteric Buddhists are reviving exploded arguments against Christianity as means of supporting their crude theories. The charge of German skeptics, that Christianity borrowed largely from Buddhism, is made once more the special stock in trade of these new and fanatical organizations. To this end books, tracts, and leaflets are scattered broadcast, and especially in the United States and Great Britain.

Professor Max Mueller says, in a recent article published in Longman’s New Review: “Who has not suffered lately from Theosophy and Esoteric Buddhism? Journals are full of it, novels overflow with it, and one is flooded with private and confidential letters to ask what it all really means. Many people, no doubt, are much distressed in their minds when they are told that Christianity is but a second edition of Buddhism. ‘Is it really true?’ they ask. ‘Why did you not tell us all this before?  Surely, you must have known it, and were only afraid to tell it.’ Then follow other questions: ‘Does Buddhism really count more believers than any other religion?’ ‘Is Buddhism really older than Christianity, and does it really contain many things which are found in the Bible?’” And the learned professor proceeds to show that there is no evidence that Christianity has borrowed from Buddhism. In this country these same ideas are perhaps more widely circulated than in England. They are subsidizing the powerful agency of the secular press, particularly the Sunday newspapers, and thousands of the people are confronting these puzzling questions. There is occasion, therefore, for a careful and candid review of Buddhism by all leaders of thought and defenders of truth.

In the brief time allotted me, I can only call attention to a few salient points of a general character. In the outset, a distinction should be drawn between Buddhist history and Buddhist legend, for just at this point the danger of misrepresentation lies. It is true that the Buddha lived before the time of Christ, and therefore anything of the nature of real biography must be of an earlier date than the teachings of Jesus; but whether the legends antedate His life and doctrines is quite another question. The Buddhist apologists all assume that they do, and it is upon the legends that most of the alleged parallelisms in the two records are based. How, then, shall we draw the line between history and legend? The consensus of the best scholarship accepts those traditions in which the northern and southern Buddhist records agree, which the Council of Patna, B.C. 242, adopted as canonical, and which are in themselves credible and consistent with the teachings of Gautama himself. According to this standard of authority Gautama was born about the sixth century B.C., as the son and heir of a rajah of the Sakya tribe of Aryans, living about eighty miles north by northwest of Benares. His mother, the principal wife of Kajah Suddhodana, had lived many years without offspring, and she died not long after the birth of this her only son, Siddartha. In his youth he was married and surrounded by all the allurements and pleasures of an Oriental court. He, too, appears to have remained without an heir till he was twenty-nine years of age, when, upon the birth of a son, certain morbid tendencies came to a climax, and he left his palace secretly and sought true comfort in a life of asceticism. For six years he tried diligently the resources of Hindu self-mortification, but becoming exhausted by his austerities, almost unto death, he abandoned that mode of life, having apparently become atheistic. He renounced the idea of merit-making as a means of spiritual attainment, and he was sorely tempted, no doubt, to return to his former life of ease. But he withstood the temptation and resolved to forego earthly pleasure, and teach mankind what he conceived to be the way of life, through self-control. He had tried pleasure; next he had tried extreme asceticism; he now struck out what he called “The Middle Path,” as between self-indulgence on the one hand, and extreme bodily mortification as a thing of merit on the other. This middle ground still demanded abstinence as favorable to the highest mental and moral conditions, but it was not carried to such extremes as to weaken the body or the mind, or impair the fullest operation of every faculty.[80]

There can be no doubt that Gautama’s relinquishment of Hinduism marked a great and most trying crisis. It involved the loss of all confidence in him on the part of his disciples, for when he began again to take necessary food they all forsook him as a failure. It was while sitting under the shade of an Indian fig-tree (Boddhi-tree) that this struggle occurred and his victory was gained. There his future course was resolved upon; there was the real birth-place of Buddhism as a system.  He thenceforth began to preach the law, or what he regarded as the way of self-emancipation, and therefore the way of life. He first sought his five followers, who had abandoned him, and succeeded in winning them back. He gathered at length a company of about sixty disciples, whom he trained and sent forth as teachers of his new doctrines. Yet, still influenced by the old Hindu notions of the religious life, he formed his disciples into an order of mendicants, and in due time he established an order of nuns.

It was when Gautama rose up from his meditation and his high resolve under the Bo-tree, that he began his career as “The Enlightened.” He was now a Buddha, and claimed to have attained Nirvana. All that has been written of his having left his palace with the purpose of becoming a saviour of mankind, is the sheer assumption of the later legends and their apologists. Buddhism was an after-thought, only reached after six years of bootless asceticism. There is no evidence that when Siddartha left his palace he had any thought of benefiting anybody but himself. He entered upon the life of the recluse with the same motives and aims that have influenced thousands of other monks and anchorets of all lands and ages—some of them princes like himself. Nevertheless, for the noble decision which was finally reached we give him high credit. It seems to have been one of the noblest victories ever gained by man over lower impulses and desires. The passions of youth were not yet dead within him; worldly ambition may be supposed to have been still in force; but he chose the part of a missionary to his fellow-men, and there is no evidence that he ever swerved from his purpose. He had won a great victory over himself, and that fact constituted a secret of great power.  Gautama was about thirty-five years of age when he became a Buddha, and for forty-five years after that he lived to preach his doctrines and to establish the monastic institution which has survived to our time. He died a natural death from indigestion at the age of eighty—greatly venerated by his disciples, and the centre of what had already become a wide-spread system in a large district of India.

The legends of Buddhism are a very different thing from the brief sketch which I have given, and which is based upon the earlier Buddhist literature. These sprang up after Gautama’s death, and their growth extended through many centuries—many centuries even of the Christian era. The legends divide the life of the Buddha into three periods: 1.  That of his pre-existent states. 2. That part of his life which extended from his birth to his enlightenment under the Bo-tree. 3. The forty-five years of his Buddhaship. The legends have no more difficulty in dealing with the particular experiences of the pre-existent states than in enriching and adorning the incidents of his earthly life; and both are doubtless about equally authentic.

Gautama discarded the idea of a divine revelation; he rejected the authority of the Vedas totally. He denied that he was divine, but distinctly claimed to be a plain and earnest man. All that he knew, he had discovered by insight and self-conquest. To assume that he was pre-existently divine and omniscient subverts the whole theory of his so-called “discovery,” and is at variance with the idea of a personal conquest. The chief emphasis and force of his teachings lay in the assumption that he did simply what other men might do; for his mission was that of a teacher and exempler merely. He was a saviour only in that he taught men how to save themselves.

The pre-existent states are set forth in the “Jatakas,” or Birth Stories of Ceylon, which represent him as having been born five hundred and thirty times after he became a Bodisat (a predestined Buddha). As a specimen of his varied experience while becoming fitted for Buddaship, we read that he was born eighty-three times as an ascetic, fifty-eight as a monarch, forty-three as a deva, twenty-four as a Brahman, eighteen as an ape; as a deer ten, an elephant six, a lion ten; at least once each as a thief, a gambler, a frog, a hare, a snipe. He was also embodied in a tree. But as a Bodisat he could not be born in hell, nor as vermin, nor as a woman! Says Spence Hardy, with a touch of irony: “He could descend no lower than a snipe.”

Northern legends represent Buddha as having “incarnated” for the purpose of bringing relief to a distressed world. He was miraculously conceived—his mother’s side in the form of a white elephant. All nature manifested its joy on the occasion. The ocean bloomed with flowers; all beings from many worlds showed their wonder and sympathy. Many miracles were wrought even during his childhood, and every part of his career was filled with marvels. At his temptation under the Bo-tree, Mara (Satan) came to him mounted on an elephant sixteen miles high and surrounded by an encircling army of demons eleven miles deep.[81] Finding him proof against his blandishments, he hurled mountains of rocks against him, and assailed him with fire and smoke and ashes and filth—all of which became as zephyrs on his cheek or as presents of fragrant flowers. Last of all, he sent his three daughters to seduce him. Their blandishments are set forth at great length in the “Romantic Legend.”

In the Northern Buddhist literature—embracing both the “Romantic Legend”[82] and the “Lalita Vistara”—many incidents of Buddha’s childhood are given which show a seeming coincidence with the life of Christ. It is claimed that his birth was heralded by angelic hosts, that an aged sage received him into his arms and blessed him, that he was taken to the temple for consecration, that a jealous ruler sought to destroy him, that in his boyhood he astonished the doctors by his wisdom, that he was baptized, or at least took a bath, that he was tempted, transfigured, and finally received up into heaven. These will be noticed farther on; it is only necessary to say here that the legends giving these details are first at variance with the early canonical history, and second, that they are of such later dates as to place most of them probably within the Christian era.

The Four Peculiar and Characteristic Doctrines of Buddhism.

1. Its peculiar conception of the soul. 2. Its doctrine of Trishna and Upadana. 3. Its theory of Kharma. 4. Its doctrine of Nirvana.

1. The Skandas, five in number, constitute in their interaction what all others than Buddhists regard as the soul. They consist of material properties; the senses; abstract ideas; tendencies or propensities; and the mental powers. The soul is the result of the combined action of these, as the flame of a candle proceeds from the combustion of its constituent elements. The flame is never the same for two consecutive moments. It seems to have a perpetuated identity, but that is only an illusion, and the same unreality pertains to the soul. It is only a succession of thoughts, emotions, and conscious experiences. We are not the same that we were an hour ago. In fact, there is no such thing as being—there is only a constant becoming. We are ever passing from one point to another throughout our life; and this is true of all beings and all things in the universe. How it is that the succession of experiences is treasured up in memory is not made clear. This is a most subtle doctrine, and it has many points of contact with various speculations of modern times. It has also a plausible side when viewed in the light of experience, but its gaps and inconsistencies are fatal, as must be seen when it is thoroughly examined.

2. The second of the cardinal doctrines is that of Trishna. Trishna is that inborn element of desire whose tendency is to lead men into evil.  So far, it is a misfortune or a form of original sin. Whatever it may have of the nature of guilt hangs upon the issues of a previous life.  Upadana is a further stage in the same development. It is Trishna ripened into intense craving by our own choice and our own action. It then becomes uncontrollable and is clearly a matter of guilt. Now, the momentum of this Upadana is such that it cannot be arrested by death.  Like the demons of Gadara it must again become incarnate, even though it should enter the body of a brute. And this transitional something, this restless moral or immoral force which must work out its natural results somehow and somewhere, and that in embodied form projects into future being a residuum which is known as Kharma.

3. What, then, is Kharma? Literally it means “the doing.” It is a man’s record, involving the consequences and liabilities of his acts. It is a score which must be settled. A question naturally arises, how the record of a soul can survive when the soul itself has been “blown out.” The illustration of the candle does not quite meet the case. If the flame were something which when blown out immediately seized upon some other substance in which the work of combustion proceeded, it would come nearer to a parallel. One candle may light another before itself is extinguished, but it does not do it by an inherent necessity. But this flame of the soul, this Kharma, must enter some other body of god, or man, or beast.

Again, the question arises, How can responsibility be transferred from one to another? How can the heavy load of a man’s sin be laid upon some new-born infant, while the departing sinner has himself no further concern in his evil Kharma, but sinks into non-existence the moment his “conformations” are touched with dissolution? Buddhism acknowledges a mystery here; no real explanation can be given, and none seems to have been attempted by Buddhist writers. To be consistent, Gautama, in denying the existence of God and of the soul as an entity, should have taught the materialistic doctrine of annihilation. This, however, he could not do in the face of that deep-rooted idea of transmigration which had taken entire possession of the Hindu mind. Gautama was compelled therefore to bridge a most illogical chasm as best he could.  Kharma without a soul to cling to is something in the air. It alights like some winged seed upon a new-born set of Skandas with its luckless boon of ill desert, and it involves the fatal inconsistency of investing with permanent character that which is itself impermanent.

But the question may be asked, “Do we not admit a similar principle when we speak of a man’s influence as something that survives him?” We answer, “No.” Influence is a simple radiation of impressions. A man may leave an influence which men are free to accept or not, but it is quite a different thing if he leaves upon a successor the moral liabilities of a bankrupt character. Gautama’s own Kharma, for example, ceased to exist upon his entering Nirvana; there was no re-birth; but his influence lives forever, and has extended to millions of his fellow-men.

The injustice involved in the doctrine of Kharma is startling. The new-born soul that inherits its unsettled score has no memory or consciousness that connects it with himself; it is not heredity; it is not his father’s character that invests him. This Kharma may have crossed the ocean from the death-bed of some unknown man of another race. The doctrine is the more astonishing when we consider that no Supreme Being is recognized as claiming this retribution. There is no God; it is a vague law of eternal justice, a law without a law-giver or a judge. There can therefore be no pardon, no commutation of sentence, no such thing as divine pity or help. The only way in which one can disentangle himself is by breaking forever the connection between spirit and matter which binds him with the shackles of conscious being.

4. Nirvana. No doctrine of Buddhism has been so much in dispute as this.

It has been widely maintained that Nirvana means extinction. But T.W.  Rhys Davids and others have held that it is “the destruction of malice, passion, and delusion,” and that it may be attained in this life. The definition is quoted from comparatively recent Pali translations.[83] Gautama, therefore, reached Nirvana forty-five years before his death.

It is claimed, however, that insomuch as it cuts off Kharma, or re-birth, it involves entire extinction of being upon the dissolution of the body.[84] It is held by still others that Nirvana is a return to the original and all-pervading Boddhi-essence. This theory, which is really a concession to the Brahmanical doctrine of absorption into the infinite Brahma, has a wide following among the modern Buddhists in China and Japan. It is a form of Buddhist pantheism.

As to the teaching of Gautama on this subject, Professor Max Mueller, while admitting that the meta-physicians who followed the great teacher plainly taught that the entire personal entity of an arhat (an enlightened one) would become extinct upon the death of the body, yet reasons, in his lecture on Buddhistic Nihilism, that the Buddha himself could not have taught a doctrine so disheartening. At the same time he quotes the learned and judicial Bishop Bigandet as declaring, after years of study and observation in Burmah, that such is the doctrine ascribed to the great teacher by his own disciples. Gautama is quoted as closing one of his sermons in these words: “Mendicants, that which binds the teacher to existence is cut off, but his body still remains. While his body still remains he shall be seen by gods and men, but after the termination of life, upon the dissolution of the body, neither gods nor men shall see him.” T.W. Rhys Davids expresses the doctrine of Nirvana tersely and correctly when he says: “Utter death, with no new life to follow, is, then, a result of, but it is not, Nirvana.”[85] Professor Oldenberg suggests, with much plausibility, that the Buddha was more reticent in regard to the doctrine of final extinction in the later periods of his life; that the depressing doctrine had been found a stumbling-block, and that he came to assume an agnostic position on the question. In his “Buddha,”[86] Professor Oldenberg, partly in answer to the grounds taken by Professor Max Mueller in his lecture on Buddhistic Nihilism, has very fully discussed the question whether the ego survives in Nirvana in any sense. He claims that certain new translations of Pali texts have given important evidence on the subject, and he sums up with the apparent conclusion that the Buddha, moved by the depressing influence which the grim doctrine of Nirvana, in the sense of extinction, was producing upon his disciples, assumed a position of reticence as to whether the ego survives or not. The venerable Malukya (see p. 275) is said to have plied the Master with questions. “Does the perfect Buddha live on beyond death, or does he not? It pleases me not that all this should remain unanswered, and I do not think it right. May it please the Master to answer me if he can. But when anyone does not understand a matter, then a straightforward man says, ‘I do not know that.’” The Buddha replies somewhat evasively that he has not undertaken to decide such questions, because they are not for spiritual edification.

The question, What is Nirvana? has been the object of more extensive discussion than its importance demands. Practically, the millions of Buddhists are not concerned with the question. They find no attraction in either view. They desire neither extinction nor unconscious absorption into the Boddhi essence (or Brahm). What they anticipate is an improved transmigration, a better birth. The more devout may indulge the hope that their next life will be spent in one of the Buddhist heavens; others may aspire to be men of high position and influence. The real heaven to which the average Buddhist looks forward is apt to be something very much after his own heart, or at least something indicated by the estimate which he himself places upon his own character and life.  There may be many transmigrations awaiting him, but he is chiefly concerned for the next in order. The very last object to excite his interest is that far-off shadow called Nirvana.

In estimating the conflict of Christianity with Buddhism we must not take counsel merely of our own sense of the absurdity of Gautama’s teachings; we are to remember that in Christian lands society is made up of all kinds of people; that outside of the Christian Church there are thousands, and even millions, who, with respect to faith, are in utter chaos and darkness. The Church therefore cannot view this subject from its own stand-point merely. Let us glance at certain features of Buddhism which render it welcome to various classes of men who dwell among us in Western lands. First of all, the system commends itself to many by its intense individualism. Paul’s figure of the various parts of the human frame as illustrating the body of Christ, mutual in the interdependence of all its members, would be wholly out of place in Buddhism. Even the Buddhist monks are so many units of introverted self-righteousness. And individualism differently applied is the characteristic of our age, and therefore a bond of sympathy is supplied.  “Every man for himself,” appeals to modern society in many ways.

Again, Gautama magnified the human intellect and the power of the human will. “O Ananda,” he said, “be lamps unto yourselves; depend upon no other.” He claimed to have thought out, and thought through every problem of existence, to have penetrated every secret of human nature in the present, and in the life to come, and his example was commended to all, that they might follow in their measure. So also our transcendental philosophers have glorified the powers and possibilities of humanity, and have made genius superior to saintliness.[87] There are tens of thousands who in this respect believe in a religion of humanity, and who worship, if they worship at all, the goddess of reason. All such have a natural affinity for Buddhism.

Another point in common between this system and the spirit of our age is its broad humanitarianism—beneficence to the lower grades of life. When love transcends the bounds of the human family it does not rise up toward God, it descends toward the lower orders of the animal world.  “Show pity toward everything that exists,” is its motto, and the insect and the worm hold a larger relative place in the Buddhist than in the Christian view. The question “Are ye not of more value than many sparrows?” might be doubtful in the Buddhist estimate, for the teacher himself, in his pre-existent states, had often been incarnate in inferior creatures. It is by no means conceded that Jesus, in asking his disciples this question, had less pity for the sparrows than the Buddha, or that his beneficence was less thoughtful of the meanest thing that glides through the air or creeps upon the earth; but the spirit of Christianity is more discriminating, and its love rises up to heaven, where, beginning with God, it descends through every grade of being.

Yet it is quite in accordance with the spirit and aim of thousands to magnify the charity that confines itself to bodily wants and distresses, to sneer at the relief which religion may bring to the far greater anguish of the spirit, and to look upon love and loyalty to God as superstition. Is it any wonder that such persons have a warm side toward Buddhism? Again, this system has certain points in common with our modern evolution theories. It is unscientific enough certainly in its speculations, but it gets on without creatorship or divine superintendence, and believes in the inflexible reign of law, though without a law-giver. It assigns long ages to the process of creation, if we may call it creation, and in development through cycles it sees little necessity for the work of God.

It can also join hands cordially with many social theories of the day.  The pessimism of Buddhists, ancient or modern, finds great sympathy in the crowded populations of the Western as well as the Eastern world.

And, almost as a rule, Esoteric Buddhism, American Buddhism, Neo-Buddhism, or whatever we may call it, is a cave of Adullam to which all types of religious apostates and social malcontents resort. The thousands who have made shipwreck of faith, who have become soured at the unequal allotments of Providence, who have learned to hate all who are above them and more prosperous than they, are just in the state of mind to take delight in Buddha’s sermon at Kapilavastu, as rehearsed by Sir Edwin Arnold. There all beings met—gods, devas, men, beasts of the field, and fowls of the air—to make common cause against the relentless fate that rules the world, and to bewail the sufferings and death which fill the great charnel-house of existence, while Buddha voiced their common complaint and stood before them as the only pitying friend that the universe had found. It was the first great Communist meeting of which we have any record.[88] The wronged and suffering universe was there, and all “took the promise of his piteous speech, So that their lives, prisoned in the shape of ape, Tiger or deer, shagged bear, jackal or wolf, Foul-feeding kite, pearled dove or peacock gemmed, Squat toad or speckled serpent, lizard, bat, Yea, or fish fanning the river waves, Touched meekly at the skirts of brotherhood With man, who hath less innocence than these: And in mute gladness knew their bondage broke Whilst Buddha spoke these things before the king.”

There was no mention of sin, but only of universal misfortune!

In contrast with the deep shadows of a brooding and all-embracing pessimism like this, we need only to hint at that glow of hope and joy with which the Sun of Righteousness has flooded the world, and the fatherly love and compassion with which the Old Testament and the New are replete, the divine plan of redemption, the psalms of praise and thanksgiving, the pity of Christ’s words and acts, and his invitations to the weary and heavy-laden. In one view it is strange that pessimism should have comfort in the fellowship of pessimism, but so it is; there is luxury even in the sympathy of hate, and so Buddhist pessimism is a welcome guest among us, though our Communistic querulousness is more bitter.

Once more, Buddhist occultism has found congenial fellowship in American spiritualism. Of late we hear less of spirit-rappings and far more of Theosophy. But this is only the same crude system with other names, and rendered more respectable by the cast-off garments of old Indian philosophy. There is a disposition in the more intellectual circles to assume a degree of disdain toward the crudeness of spiritualism and its vulgar familiarity with departed spirits, who must ever be disturbed by its beck and call; but it is confidently expected that the thousands, nay, as some say, millions, of American spiritualists will gladly welcome the name and the creed of Buddha.[89] It will be idle therefore to assume that the old sleepy system of Gautama has no chance in this wide-awake republic of the West.[90]

I have already called attention to the special tactics of Buddhists just now in claiming that Christianity, having been of later origin, has borrowed its principal facts and its teachings. Let us examine the charge. It is a real tribute to the character of Christ that so many sects of false religionists have in all ages claimed Him either as a follower or as an incarnation of their respective deities. Others have acknowledged his teachings as belonging to their particular style and grade. The bitter and scathing calumny of Celsus, in the first centuries of our era, did not prevent numerous attempts to prove the identity of Christ’s teachings with some of the most popular philosophies of the heathen world. Porphyry claimed that many of Christ’s virtues were copied from Pythagoras. With like concession Mohammedanism included Jesus as one of the six great prophets, and confessedly the only sinless one among them all. Many a fanatic in the successive centuries has claimed to be a new incarnation of the Son of God. Hindus have named Him as an incarnation of Vishnu for the Western, as was Krishna for the Eastern World. As was indicated in the opening of this lecture, the Theosophists are making special claim to Him,[91] and are reviving the threadbare theory that He was a follower of Buddha.

So strong an effort is made to prove that Christianity has borrowed both its divine leader and its essential doctrines from India, that a moment’s attention may well be given to the question here. One allegation is that the Evangelists copied the Buddhist history and legends in their account of Christ’s early life. Another is that the leaders of the Alexandrian Church worked over the gospel story at a later day, having felt more fully the influence of India at that great commercial centre. The two theories are inconsistent with each other, and both are inconsistent with the assumption that Christ Himself was a Buddhist, and taught the Buddhist doctrines, since this supposition would have obviated the need of any manipulation or fraud at any point.

In replying as briefly as possible I shall endeavor to cover both allegations. In strong contrast with these cheap assertions of Alexandrian corruption and plagiarism is the frank admission of such keen critics as Renan, Weiss, Volkmar, Schenkel, and Hitzig,[92] that the gospel record as we have it, was written during a generation in which some of the companions of Jesus still lived. Renan says of Mark’s Gospel that “it is full of minute observations, coming doubtless from an eye-witness,” and he asserts that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written “in substantially their present form by the men whose names they bear.” These Gospels were the work of men who knew Jesus. Matthew was one of the Twelve; John in his Epistle speaks of himself as an eye-witness.  They were written in a historic age and were open to challenge. They were nowhere contradicted in contemporary history. They fit their environment.

How is it with the authenticity of Buddhist literature? Oldenberg says, “For the when of things men of India have never had a proper organ,” and Max Mueller declares to the same effect, that “the idea of a faithful, literal translation seems altogether foreign to Oriental minds.” He also informs us that there is not a single manuscript in India which is a thousand years old, and scarcely one that can claim five hundred years. For centuries after Gautama’s time nothing was written; all was transmitted by word of mouth. Buddhists themselves say that the Pali canonical texts were written about 88 B.C.[93]

Any fair comparison of the two histories should confine itself to the writings which are regarded as canonical respectively, and whose dates can be fixed. No more importance should be attached to the later Buddhist legends than to the “Apocryphal Gospels,” or to the absurd “Christian Legends” which appeared in the middle ages. The Buddhist Canon was adopted by the Council of Patna 242 B.C. The legends which are generally compared with the canonical story of Christ are not included in that Canon, or at most very few of them. They are drawn from certain poetical books written much later, and holding about the same relation to the Buddhist Canon that the “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” of Milton bear to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Who would think of quoting “Paradise Lost” in any sober comparison of Biblical truth with the teachings of other religions?[94]

Even the canonical literature, that which is supposed to contain the true history and teachings of Buddha, is far from authoritative, owing to the acknowledged habit—acknowledged even by the author of the “Dhammapada” of adding commentaries, notes, etc., to original teachings.  Not only was this common among Buddhist writers, but even more surprising liberties were taken with the narrative. For example: The legend describing Buddha’s leave-taking of his harem is clearly borrowed from an earlier story of Yasa, a wealthy young householder of Benares, who, becoming disgusted with his harem, left his sleeping dancing girls and fled to the Buddha for instruction. Davids and Oldenberg, in translating this legend from the “Mahavagga,” say in a note, “A well-known incident in the life of Buddha has evidently been shaped after the model of this story;” and they declare that “nowhere in the ‘Pali Pitakas’ is this scene of Buddha’s leave-taking mentioned.”

As another evidence of the way in which fact and fiction have been mixed and manipulated for a purpose, one of the legends, which has often been presented as a parallel to the story of Christ, represents the Buddha as repelling the temptation of Mara by quoting texts of “scripture,” and the scripture referred to was the “Dhammapada.” But the “Dhammapada” was compiled hundreds of years after Buddha’s death. Besides, there were no “scriptures” of any kind in his day, for nothing was written till two or three centuries later; and worse still, Buddha is made to quote his own subsequent teachings; for the “Dhammapada” claims to consist of the sacred words of the “enlightened one.” Most of the legends of Buddhism were wholly written after the beginning of the Christian era, and it cannot be shown that any were written in their present form until two or three centuries of that era had elapsed. T.W. Rhys Davids says of the “Lalita Vistara” which contains a very large proportion of them, and one form of which is said to have been translated into Chinese in the first century A.D., “that there is no real proof that it existed in its present form before the year 600 A.D.” The “Romantic Legend” cannot be traced farther back than the third century A.D. Oldenberg says: “No biography of Buddha has come down to us from ancient times, from the age of the Pali texts, and we can safely say that no such biography was in existence then.” Beal declares that the Buddhist legend, as found in the various Epics of Nepal, Tibet, and China, “is not framed after any Indian model of any date, but is to be found worked out, so to speak, among northern peoples, who were ignorant of, or indifferent to, the pedantic stories of the Brahmans. In the southern and primitive records the terms of the legend are wanting. Buddha is not born of a royal family; he is not tempted before his enlightenment; he works no miracles, and he is not a Universal Saviour.”

The chances are decidedly that if any borrowing has been done it was on the side of Buddhism. It has been asserted that thirty thousand Buddhist monks from Alexandria once visited Ceylon on the occasion of a great festival. This is absurd on the face of it; but that a Christian colony settled in Malabar at a very early period is attested by the presence of thousands of their followers even to this day.

In discussing the specific charge of copying Buddhist legends in the gospel narratives, we are met at the threshold by insurmountable improbabilities. To some of these I ask a moment’s attention. I shall not take the time to discuss in detail the alleged parallels which are paraded as proofs. To anyone who understands the spirit of Judaism and its attitude toward heathenism of all kinds, it is simply inconceivable that the Christian disciples, whose aim it was to propagate the faith of their Master in a Jewish community, should have borrowed old Indian legends, which, by the terms of the supposition, must have been widely known as such. And Buddhist apologists must admit that it is a little strange that the Scribes and Pharisees, who were intelligent, and as alert as they were bitter, should never have exposed this transparent plagiarism. The great concern of the Apostles was to prove to Jews and Gentiles that Jesus was the Christ of Old Testament prophecy. The whole drift of their preaching and their epistles went to show that the gospel history rested squarely and uncompromisingly on a Jewish basis. Peter and John, Stephen and Paul, constantly “reasoned with the Jews out of their own Scriptures.” How unspeakably absurd is the notion that they were trying to palm off on those keen Pharisees a Messiah who, though in the outset at Nazareth he publicly traced his commission to Old Testament prophecy, was all the while copying an atheistic philosopher of India!

It is equally inconceivable that the Christian fathers should have copied Buddhism. They resisted Persian mysticism as the work of the Devil, and it was in that mysticism, if anywhere, that Buddhist influence existed in the Levant. Whoever has read Tertullian’s withering condemnation of Marcion may judge how far the fathers of the Church favored the heresies of the East. Augustine had himself been a Manichean mystic, and when after his conversion he became the great theologian of the Church, he must have known whether the teachings of the Buddha were being palmed off on the Christian world. The great leaders of that age were men of thorough scholarship and of the deepest moral earnestness.  Many of them gave up their possessions and devoted their lives to the promotion of the truths which they professed. Scores of them sealed their faith by martyr deaths.

But even if we were to accept the flippant allegation that they were all impostors, yet we should be met by an equally insurmountable difficulty in the utter silence of the able and bitter assailants of Christianity in the first two or three centuries. Celsus prepared himself for his well-known attack on Christianity with the utmost care, searching history, philosophy, and every known religion from which he could derive an argument against the Christian faith.

Why did he not strike at the very root of the matter by exposing those stupid plagiarists who were attempting to play off upon the intelligence of the Roman world a clumsy imitation of the far-famed Buddha? It was the very kind of thing that the enemies of Christianity wanted. Why should the adroit Porphyry attempt to work up a few mere scraps of resemblance from the life of Pythagoras, when all he had to do was to lay his hand upon familiar legends which afforded an abundance of the very thing in demand?

Again, it is to be remembered that Christianity has always been restrictive and opposed to admixtures with other systems. It repelled the Neo-Platonism of Alexandria, and it fought for two or three centuries against Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and similar heresies: and the assumption, in the face of all this, that the Christian Church went out of its way to copy Indian Buddhism, must be due either to gross ignorance or to reckless misrepresentation. On the other hand, it is in accordance with the very genius of Buddhism to borrow. It has absorbed every indigenous superstition and entered into partnership with every local religious system, from the Devil Worship of Burmah and Ceylon to the Taouism of China and the Shinto of Japan. In its long-continued contact with Christianity it has changed from the original atheism of Gautama to various forms of theism, and in some of its sects, at least, from a stanch insistance on self-help alone to an out-and-out doctrine of salvation by faith. This is true of the Shin and Yodo sects of Japan. From recognizing no God at all at first, Buddhism had, by the seventh century A.D., a veritable Trinity, with attributes resembling those of the Triune God of the Christians, and by the tenth century it had five trinities with One Supreme Adi-Buddha over them all. Everyone may judge for himself whether these later interpolations of the system were borrowed from the New Testament Trinity, which had been proclaimed through all the East ten centuries before. Buddhism is still absorbing foreign elements through the aid of its various apologists. Sir Edwin Arnold has greatly added to the force of its legend by the Christian phrases and Christian conceptions which he has read into it. Toward the close of the “Light of Asia” he also introduces into the Buddha’s sermon at Kapilavastu the teachings of Herbert Spencer and others of our own time.

But altogether the most stupendous improbability lies against the whole assumption that Christ and his followers based their “essential doctrines” on the teachings of the Buddha. The early Buddhism was atheistic: this is the common verdict of Davids, Childers, Sir Monier Williams, Kellogg, and many others. The Buddha declared that “without cause and unknown is the life of man in this world,” and he recognized no higher being to whom he owed reverence. “The Buddhist Catechism,” by Subhadra, shows that modern Buddhism has no recognition of God.

It says (page 58): “Buddhism teaches the reign of perfect goodness and wisdom without a personal God, continuance of individuality without an immortal soul, eternal happiness without a local heaven, the way of salvation without a vicarious saviour, redemption worked out by each one himself without any prayers, sacrifices, and penances, without the ministry of ordained priests, without the intercession of saints, without divine mercy.” And then, by way of authentication, it adds:

“These, and many others which have become the fundamental doctrines of the Buddhist religion, were recognized by the Buddha in the night of his enlightenment under the Boddhi-tree.” And yet we are told that this is the system which Christ and his followers copied. Compare this passage with the Lord’s Prayer, or with the discourse upon the lilies, and its lesson of trust in God the Father of all! I appeal not merely to Christian men, but to any man who has brains and common-sense, was there ever so preposterous an attempt to establish an identity of doctrines?

But what is the evidence found in the legends themselves? Several leading Oriental scholars, and men not at all biased in favor of Christianity, have carefully examined the subject, and have decided that there is no connection whatever. Professor Seydel, of Leipsic, who has given the most scientific plea for the so-called coincidences, of which he claims there are fifty-one, has classified them as: 1, Those which may have been merely accidental, having arisen from similar causes, and not necessarily implying any borrowing on either side; 2, those which seem to have been borrowed from the one narrative or the other; and 3, those which he thinks were clearly copied by the Christian writers. In this last class he names but five out of fifty-one.

Kuenen, who has little bias in favor of Christianity, and who has made a very thorough examination of Seydel’s parallels, has completely refuted these five.[95] And speaking of the whole question he says: “I think we may safely affirm that we must abstain from assigning to Buddhism the smallest direct influence on the origin of Christianity.” He also says of similar theories of de Bunsen: “A single instance is enough to teach us that inventive fancy plays the chief part in them.”[96]

Rhys Davids, whom Subhadra’s “Buddhist Catechism” approves as the chief exponent of Buddhism, says on the same subject: “I can find no evidence of any actual or direct communication of these ideas common to Buddhism and Christianity from the East to the West.” Oldenberg denies their early date, and Beal denies them an Indian origin of any date.


Contrasts between Buddhism and Christianity.

Rhys Davids has pointed out the fact that, while Buddhism in some points is more nearly allied to Christianity than any other system, yet in others it is the farthest possible from it in its spirit and its tendency. If we strike out those ethical principles which, to a large extent, are the common heritage of mankind, revealed in the understanding and the conscience, we shall find in what remains an almost total contrariety to the Christian faith. To give a few examples only.

1. Christ taught the existence and glory of God as Supreme, the Creator and Father, the righteous Judge. His supreme mission to reconcile all men to God was the key-note of all His ministry. By His teaching the hearts of men are lifted up above all earthly conceptions to the worship of infinite purity, and to the comforting assurance of more than a father’s care and love. Buddhism, on the contrary, knows nothing of God, offers no heavenly incentive, no divine help. Leading scholars are agreed that, whatever it may be now, the original orthodox Buddhism was essentially atheistic. It despised the idea of divine help, and taught men to rely upon themselves. While, therefore, Buddhism never rose above the level of earthly resources, and contemplated only lower orders of being, Christianity begins with God as supreme, to be worshipped and loved with all the heart, mind, and strength, while our neighbors are to be loved as ourselves.

2. Christ represented Himself as having pre-existed from the foundation of the world, as having been equal with God in the glory of heaven, all of which He resigned that He might enter upon the humiliation of our earthly state, and raise us up to eternal life. He distinctly claimed oneness and equality with the Father. Buddha claimed no such antecedent glory; he spoke of himself as a man merely; the whole aim of his teaching was to show in himself what every man might accomplish. Later legends ascribe to him a sort of pre-existence, in which five hundred and thirty successive lives were passed, sometimes as a man, sometimes as a god, many times as an animal. But even these claims were not made by Buddha himself—except so far as was implied by the common doctrine of transmigration.

Furthermore, in relation to the alleged pre-existences, according to strict Buddhist doctrine it was not really he who had gone before, it was only a Kharma or character that had exchanged hands many times before it could be taken up by the real and conscious Buddha born upon the earth. Still further, even after the beginning of his earthly life he lived for many years in what, according to his own teaching, was heinous sin, all of which is fatal to the theory of pre-existent holiness.

3. Christ is a real Saviour; His atonement claimed to be a complete ransom from the penalty of sin, and by His teaching and example, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, He overcomes the power of sin itself, transforming the soul into His own image. Buddha, on the other hand, did not claim to achieve salvation for any except himself, though Mr. Arnold and others constantly use such terms as “help” and “salvation.” Nothing of the kind is claimed by the early Buddhist doctrines; they plainly declare that purity and impurity belong to one’s self, and that no one can purify another.

4. Christ emphatically declared Himself a helper, even in this life:

“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He promised also to send his Spirit as a comforter, as a supporter of his disciples’ faith, as a guide and teacher, at all times caring for their need; in whatever exigency his grace would be sufficient for them. On the contrary, Buddha taught his followers that no power in heaven or earth could help them; the victory must be their own. “How can we hope to amend a life,” says Bishop Carpenter, “which is radically bad, by the aid of a system which teaches that man’s highest aim should be to escape from life? All that has been said against the ascetic and non-worldly attitude of Christianity might be urged with additional force against Buddhism. It is full of the strong, sweet, pathetic compassion which looks upon life with eyes full of tears, but only to turn them away from it again, as from an unsolved and insoluble riddle.” And he substantiates his position by quoting Reville and Oldenberg. Reville reaches this similar conclusion: “Buddhism, born on the domain of polytheism, has fought against it, not by rising above nature in subordinating it to a single sovereign spirit, but by reproving nature in principle, and condemning life itself as an evil and a misfortune. Buddhism does not measure itself against this or that abuse, does not further the development or reformation of society, either directly or indirectly, for the very simple reason that it turns away from the world on principle.”

Oldenberg, one of the most thorough of Pali scholars, says: “For the lower order of the people, for those born to toil in manual labor, hardened by the struggle for existence, the announcement of the connection of misery with all forms of existence was not made, nor was the dialectic of the law of the painful concatenation of causes and effects calculated to satisfy ‘the poor in spirit.’ ‘To the wise belongeth this law,’ it is said, ‘not to the foolish.’ Very unlike the work of that Man who ‘suffered little children to come unto Him, for of such is the kingdom of God.’ For children, and those who are like children, the arms of Buddha are not opened.”

5. Christ and his disciples set before men the highest motives of life.  The great end of man was to love God supremely, and one’s neighbor as himself. Every true disciple was to consider himself an almoner and dispenser of the divine goodness to his race. It was this that inspired the sublime devotion of Paul and of thousands since his time. It is the secret principle of all the noblest deeds of men. Gautama had no such high and unselfish aim. He found no inspiring motive above the level of humanity. His system concentrates all thought and effort on one’s own life—virtually on the attainment of utter indifference to all things else. The early zeal of Gautama and his followers in preaching to their fellow-men was inconsistent with the plain doctrines taught at a later day. If in any case there were those who, like Paul, burned with desire to save their fellow-men, all we can say is, they were better than their creed. Such was the spirit of the Gospel, rather than the idle and useless torpor of the Buddhist order. “Here, according to Buddhists,” says Spence Hardy, “is a mere code of proprieties, an occasional opiate, a plan for being free from discomfort, a system for personal profit.” Buddhism certainly taught the repression of human activity and influence. Instead of saying, “Let your light so shine before men that they, seeing your good works, may glorify your Father who is in heaven,” or “Work while the day lasts,” it said, “If thou keepest thyself silent as a broken gong, thou hast attained Nirvana.” “To wander about like the rhinoceros alone,” was enjoined as the pathway of true wisdom.

6. Christ taught that life, though attended with fearful alternatives, is a glorious birthright, with boundless possibilities and promise of good to ourselves and others. Buddhism makes life an evil which it is the supreme end of man to conquer and cut off from the disaster of re-birth. Christianity opens a path of usefulness, holiness, and happiness in this life, and a career of triumph and glory in the endless ages to come. Both Buddhism and Hinduism are worse than other pessimistic systems in their fearful law of entailment through countless transmigrations, each of which must be a struggle.

7. Christ, according to the New Testament, “ever liveth to make intercession for us,” and the Holy Spirit represents Him constantly as an ever-living power in the world, to regenerate, save, and bless. But Buddha is dead, and his very existence is a thing of the past. Only traditions and the influence of his example can help men in the struggle of life. Said Buddha to his disciples: “As a flame blown by violence goes out and cannot be reckoned, even so a Buddha delivered from name and body disappears and cannot be reckoned as existing.” Again, he said to his Order, “Mendicants, that which binds the Teacher (himself) is cut off, but his body still remains. While this body shall remain he will be seen by gods and men, but after the termination of life, upon the dissolution of the body, neither gods nor men shall see him.”

8. Christ taught the sacredness of the human body. “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you?” said His great Apostle. But Buddhism says: “As men deposit filth upon a dungheap and depart regretting nothing, wanting nothing, so will I depart leaving this body filled with vile vapors.” Christ and His disciples taught the triumphant resurrection of the body in spiritual form and purity after His own image. The Buddhist forsakes utterly and forever the deserted, cast-off mortality, while still he looks only for another habitation equally mortal and corruptible, and possibly that of a lower animal.  Thus, through all these lines of contrast, and many others that might be named, there appear light and life and blessedness on the one hand, and gloom and desolation on the other.

The gloomy nature of Buddhism is well expressed in Hardy’s “Legends and Theories of Buddhism” as follows: “The system of Buddhism is humiliating, cheerless, man-marring, soul-crushing. It tells me that I am not a reality, that I have no soul. It tells me that there is no unalloyed happiness, no plenitude of enjoyment, no perfect unbroken peace in the possession of any being whatever, from the highest to the lowest, in any world. It tells me that I may live myriads of millions of ages, and that not in any of those ages, nor in any portion of any age, can I be free from apprehension as to the future, until I attain to a state of unconsciousness; and that in order to arrive at this consummation I must turn away from all that is pleasant, or lovely, or instructive, or elevating, or sublime. It tells me by voices ever repeated, like the ceaseless sound of the sea-wave on the shore, that I shall be subject to sorrow, impermanence, and unreality so long as I exist, and yet that I cannot cease to exist, nor for countless ages to come, as I can only attain nirvana in the time of a Supreme Buddha. In my distress I ask for the sympathy of an all-wise and all-powerful friend. But I am mocked instead by the semblance of relief, and am told to look to Buddha, who has ceased to exist; to the Dharma that never was in existence, and to the Sangha, the members of which are real existences, but like myself are partakers of sorrow and sin.”

How shall we measure the contrast between all this and the ecstacies of Christian hope, which in various forms are expressed in the Epistles of Paul; the expected crown of righteousness, the eternal weight of glory; heirship with Christ in an endless inheritance; the house not made with hands; the General Assembly of the first born? Even in the midst of earthly sorrows and persecutions he could say, “Nay, in all things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”



[Footnote 80: It is by no means certain that Buddha’s followers, in carrying out his system, have not lapsed into the old notions of merit-making asceticism to greater or less extent, and have become virtually very much like the torpid and useless fakirs of the old Hinduism.]

[Footnote 81: The Jataka legends of Ceylon, dating in their present form about 500 A.D., greatly enlarge the proportions of this Northern legend, making the elephant over seven thousand miles high, and widening out the surrounding army to one hundred and sixty four miles.]

[Footnote 82: Of the Romantic Legend found in Nepaul, Beall’s translation is probably the best.]

[Footnote 83: See Appendix of Origin and Growth of Religion as illustrated in Buddhism.]

[Footnote 84: See Buddhism, pp. 110-115.]

[Footnote 85: Buddhism, p. 114.]

[Footnote 86: Pp. 265-285.]

[Footnote 87: It is the boast of the author of Esoteric Buddhism, that strange mixture of Western spiritualism with Oriental mysticism, that his system despises the tame “goody, goody” spirit of Christianity, and deals with the endless growth of mind.]

[Footnote 88: Light of Asia.]

[Footnote 89: Mr. Sinnett, in his Esoteric Buddhism, expressed the idea that it was high time that the crudities of spiritualism should be corrected by the more philosophic occultism of the East.]

[Footnote 90: The points of contact between Buddhism and certain forms of Western thought have been ably treated by Professor S.H. Kellogg, in the Light of Asia and Light of the World.]

[Footnote 91: A recent tract has appeared, entitled Theosophy the Religion of Jesus.]

[Footnote 92: Cited by Professor Kellogg.]

[Footnote 93: Professor T.W. Rhys Davids, in his introduction to Buddhism, enumerates the following sources of knowledge concerning the early Buddhism:

1. The Lalita Vistara, a Sanscrit work of the Northern Buddhists “full of extravagant fictions” concerning the early portion of Gautama’s life.  Davids compares it to Milton’s Paradise Regained, as a source of history, and claims that although parts of it were translated into Chinese in the first century of our era, there is no proof of its existence in its present form earlier than the sixth century A.D.

2. Two Thibetan versions, based chiefly on the Lalita Vistara.

3. The Romantic Legend, from the Sanscrit of the Northern Buddhists, translated into Chinese in the sixth century A.D.; English version by Beal published in 1875. This also is an extravagant poem. This and the Lalita Vistara embrace most of the alleged parallels to the Life of Christ.

4. The original Pali text of the Commentary on the Jatakas, written in Ceylon probably about the fifth century of our era. Davids considers its account down to the time of Gautama’s return to Kapilavastu, “the best authority we have.” It contains word for word almost the whole of the life of Gautama given by Turnour, from a commentary on the Buddhavansa, “which is the account of the Buddhas contained in the second Pitaka.”

5. An account taken by Spence Hardy from Cingalese books of a comparatively modern date.

6. An English translation by Bigandet of a Burmese account, which was itself a translation of unknown date made from a Pali version.

7. An account of the death of Gautama, given in Pali and said to be the oldest of all the sources. It is full of wonders created by the fancy of the unknown author, but differs widely from the fancy sketches of the Lalita Vistara of the North.

8. A translation by Mr. Alabaster of a Siamese account. It does not claim to be exact.]

[Footnote 94: T.W. Rhys Davids illustrates the worthlessness of poetic narrations as grounds of argument by quoting from Milton’s Paradise Regained this mere fancy sketch of the accompaniments of Christ’s temptation:

“And either tropic now

‘Gan thunder and both ends of heaven; the clouds

From many a horrid rift abortive poured

Fierce rain with lightning mixed, water with fire

In ruin reconciled; nor slept the winds

Within their stony caves, but rush’d abroad

From the four hinges of the world, and fell

On the vex’d wilderness; whose tallest pines

Tho’ rooted deep as high and sturdiest oaks,

Bowed their stiff necks, loaden with stormy blasts

Or torn up sheer. Ill wast Thou shrouded then,

O patient Son of God, yet stood’st alone

Unshaken! nor yet staid the terror there;

Infernal ghosts and hellish furies round

Environed Thee; some howl’d, some yell’d, some shriek’d,

Some bent at Thee their fiery darts, while Thou

Sat’st unappall’d in calm and sinless peace.”

Book iv.]

[Footnote 95: See National Religion and Universal Religion, p. 362.]

[Footnote 96: Hibbert Lectures, 1882.]


This is taken from Eastern Religions and Christianity.





Copyright © World Spirituality · All Rights Reserved