Q. In your opinion, if the Buddha were among us today, would he consider himself a Buddhist? Would Jesus Christ identify as a Jew or a Christian?
A. Hypothetical thought provoking questions like these are fun to consider, as long as we remember that our answers are based upon well-intentioned guesswork; a play of the imagination. For the record, Buddhist cosmology does not endorse or deny reincarnation as it is viewed here in the west. Buddhism teaches that an associated stream of constantly changing mental energy will, through rebirth, be established in a new life and body. This idea is uniquely different than our western notion of a soul, core being, or eternal entity. That being said, most spiritual beliefs agree that the circumstances into which we are reborn are conditioned by the experiences (positive and negative) of our previous life.
Our collective belief system places these two individuals (and others) in a special category. We think of them as awakened, enlightened, or advanced beings. In our own unique way, we aspire to be like them; to emulate the love and compassion they shared with so many during their lifetime. The (historical) Buddha never represented himself as heavenly or enlightened, even during in-depth questioning. He said simply that he was awake, and that his awakened nature ceased to be interrupted by the sleep of ignorance. He understood that he was the stillness at the center of the wheel, as well the spokes that turned the wheel.
Although countless discourses (sutras) are attributed to Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, the vast body of teachings and commentaries associated with his oral talks emerged later, from the memory storehouses of his followers and those who knew him best. We might call these individuals early Buddhists. The perseverance and diligence of these individuals, as well as those who carried the teachings to other lands, made Buddhism as we know it today possible. That was approximately 2600 years ago, and although I am a fan of the teachings associated with Buddhism, I believe they have evolved substantially over such a long time. A longtime practitioner once commented that he didn’t think the Buddha would recognize his original teachings, perhaps mistaking them for a related philosophy. Based on my limited knowledge, I tend to agree.
Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, lived on the earth approximately 2000 years ago, 600 years after the Buddha. Although what they taught is often favorably compared, the lives of these two individuals could not have been more different. History suggests that the Buddha never talked about the One God of the desert, perhaps because he was born in what is now Nepal, and never traveled beyond India’s culture or framework. However, many people heard about the Buddha’s profound teachings, and traveled far to hear him, so it is entirely possible that an exchange of cultural and religious views took place.
There is historical and textual evidence to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth knew about Buddhism, because both existed in Judea at the same time. Political and cultural influences permeated Judea, an important shipping center for trade between India and the West. Like the Buddha, Jesus Christ was a central figure in his time. Christians believe Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, but he never referred to himself in that context. He taught orally, as did the Buddha, and the current mainstream view holds that he was the founder of a renewal movement within Judaism. After his death, his followers and the community they formed eventually became the Christian church.
We can certainly find similarities between the Buddha and Jesus Christ. Both espoused a wisdom that undermined and challenged convention, and both regarded moral and ethical behavior similarly. They taught a “way” or “path” that cut through dogma, jargon and established religious views. Their teachings proposed an antidote to suffering and the means for achieving it in one lifetime. But would a returning Buddha be a Buddhist, or Jesus Christ a Christian – or vice-versa?
I don’t think so. I believe these wise beings would see the world anew. Taking current world events into account, they would quickly become aware of when and where our ship ran aground. I would like to think they would reject the status quo and refresh our tired, impoverished beliefs. Wishful thinking? Maybe. Like many others, I long for a time when compassion for all beings is the norm and not a futuristic goal. I would also like to think we could wipe the sleep of ignorance from our own eyes, without waiting to be led. But just in case, I’ll go on record as saying I would welcome the return of these, and other great beings. My heart is open and so is my door!