Buddha and Jesus: The link between Buddhism and Christianity through the Gospel of Thomas

In 77th Pearl: The Perpetual Tree, we find strong links made between Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth.  They are logical links, made through the teachings in the Gospel of Thomas and the central teaching established through Paticcasamuppada. Here, a distinction is drawn between Buddhist teachings in the original Pali Canon and the popularised Sanskrit version of Buddhism. This distinction is similar to the difference we find between the Christian orthodoxy (denominations that only accept canonical Bible doctrine) and the teachings found in the Gospel of Thomas.

Two related topics and authors are mentioned here. They describe knowledge and understanding that is crucial in appreciating the links between Jesus of Nazareth and Gautama Buddha. The book, ‘Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination’ by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (Bhikkhu meaning monk), will be referenced as an adjunct to the commentary for Thomas 7. Buddhadasa’s text illustrates an authentic way of understanding the primary teachings of the Buddha and at the centre we find the concept of ‘Paticcasamuppada’. In addition, the views of Stephen Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk and widely published author, will be mentioned as a reflection of the dynamism, he suggests, Buddhist beliefs have had and should continue to have in the modern world. Bachelor’s view, about contemporary Buddhist communities, reflects what the 77th Pearl: The Perpetual Tree illustrates about the necessity for critical analysis of Christian doctrine too. Such a critique would see the fundamental truths of Jesus’ teachings, found in the Gospel of Thomas, come to life in our every day lives. Moreover, Batchelor shows how humans have desired the structure of institutions, which are built on dogma and formalised practices. This desire in people has altered the essential meaning of Paticcasamuppada, because of general apathy and a lack of critical analysis. For this reason, Batchelor’s views are also presented here to illustrate a parallel in apathy we find in contemporary Christian orthodoxy. The desire for dogma and a religion/institution that represents it demonstrates a weakness in human kind. There is a desire to make the messenger into the message, rather than listen to the message – perhaps because this takes more effort (reflected in Thomas 13, 43, 52, 88). It is this tendency that sees people worship Jesus and Buddha as deities, their image replacing their message.

Throughout 77th Pearl: The Perpetual Treewe see how the original teachings (sayings) of Jesus have been recontextualised in the New Testament, through placing them within various narratives. The sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are reliable, because they are simply quotes. Indeed, this fits the scenario of an aural tradition, which would have initially been the only link to Jesus’ teachings. There is strong evidence for this pattern of distortion throughout human history. We can cite such evidence in the way the Buddha’s teaching of Paticcasamuppada was interpreted over time. This example is one that links and ratifies the words of Jesus in Thomas 7. It also illustrates how the teachings of both men have been interpreted in different ways for various reasons.

In the commentary for Thomas 7, we see the revelation of the nature of the human—a beast, the flesh the soul inhabits. The baffling nature of this saying reflects the necessity for Jesus to conceal the true meaning of some of His teachings, as they did not fit the beliefs of His contemporaries. Indeed, Christian orthodoxy apologists argue that a typical rabbi of Jesus’ time would not utter such cryptic and sometimes blasphemous rhetoric. This is true. Jesus was not typical of His time, He was the new wine. The words of Thomas 7, ‘Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human,’ challenge the notion of humanity as a creation separate from the animals around them. This is what the Abrahamic religions maintain. They believe Human bodies were uniquely created apart from all other creation, then the soul entered into that flesh, by God’s will. We see in Thomas 29 that this is incorrect. However, as in other sayings, Thomas 7 is imbued with more than just this practical and logical wisdom. Thomas 7 describes the nature we tend to fall back into, the nature of the ignorant animal, which has no altruistic feelings—it places itself at the centre of everything and becomes angered and disturbed by events that are unfavourable to its cravings and desires. How then does this relate to the primary teachings of Gautama Buddha? If we look at the profoundly insightful teaching of Paticcasamuppada, we can see how it is closely linked to Thomas 7.

Sitting under a bodhi tree (a fig tree native to India), Gautama Buddha meditated, determined to find the path out of suffering. It was at this point he attained enlightenment. In real terms, this did not mean he began to glow with light and was able to perform fantastical feats. It meant that he had a deep inner peace, acquired through a profound understanding of the reality or truth (Dharma) we encounter in this existence. The enlightenment he attained gave us Paticcasamuppada or Dependent Origination. The version given here is from the text ‘Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination’ by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, (Published in 1992 by the Vuddhidhamma Fund, Distributed by Thammasapa)—this and other versions can be found online. The eleven conditions of Paticcasamuppada are given in various orders after Buddha’s enlightenment, but the two presented here are The Regular or Forward Order and the Extinction in the Middle. The latter is presented as further evidence for Buddhadasa’s assertion that Paticcasamuppada is experienced in a split second, rather than a whole lifetime.

The Regular or Forward Order:

‘Ignorance gives rise to mental concocting;
Mental concocting gives rise to consciousness;
Consciousness gives rise to mentality/materiality;
Mentality/materiality gives rise to the sense bases;
The sense bases give rise to contact;
Contact gives rise to feeling;
Feeling gives rise to craving;
Craving gives rise to attachment;
Attachment gives rise to becoming;
Becoming gives rise to birth;
Birth gives rise to old age and death.’

Buddhadasa explains that this is called one turning of the chain, or wheel, of Dependent Origination, from beginning to end. He also spends significant time clarifying the conventional, and he implies misguided, understanding of what this process actually involves. In some Buddhist faiths, Paticcasamuppada is understood as the experience of one whole lifetime, which is on a continuous loop to become endless lifetimes if craving does not cease. Therefore, it becomes an accumulative result of behaviours within a lifetime, which then determines the condition in which one is reborn—the karma effect. Buddhadasa’s view is very different—it is this point of view we see linking to Thomas 7. Buddhadasa also explains that well-meaning disciples of the Buddha, who had expanded on the original Pali Canon, established some of the current, erroneous, Buddhist beliefs.

Gautama Buddha chose to give his sermons in the Pali language, the native tongue of the common people. This observation is made by Buddhadasa and Stephen Batchelor, which will be explored further on. As with Christian beliefs and the Gospel of Thomas, Buddhist scholars now have access to the original Pali manuscripts, which contradict some of the beliefs within the various sects of Buddhism. Buddhadasa maintains that Gautama Buddha never spoke about the mechanism of rebirth—Batchelor also supports this. Rebirth was a mainstream ideology, the belief of the Indian culture Gautama Buddha was born into. The Buddha showed no interest in entering into a dialogue about the unknown. The questions of mind/body dualism, the mysteries of the universe, and reincarnation, were distractions to his path. He implied reincarnation’s position as an accepted eventuality, but did not attempt to explain the process. The process of the soul’s journey is described here, in 77th Pearl: The Perpetual Tree, through the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas.

Buddhadasa asserts that Paticcasamuppada describes what we go through in our everyday lives, in a split second of impassioned craving. To paraphrase Buddhadasa: the process of Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination) can be compared to a child who has a desirable toy placed within its presence. The child is symbolic of who we are when we are in a state of ignorance. In this state, we have no control over our thoughts and cravings. The toy represents any mental or material thing we might have, imagine, or desire. When the toy has been removed, or an obstacle is placed before it, our sense bases arise. This distraction makes contact with our eyes, ears, smell or touch, which then give rise to feelings of anger, loss, lust, disappointment, and so on. The attachment gives rise to the birth, which is the illusion of self or ego. ‘Old age and death’ represent the symbolic suffering within this cycle and the inevitability of this suffering arising again, due to ignorance. This process is comparable to Thomas 7. Ignorance is the rebirth of the primal animal—which is in us and is ‘the human that the lion will eat’ so that ‘the lion still will become human’—reborn with ignorance and craving. However, as in the first part of Thomas 7, if the lion (the physical manifestations we engage with everyday) makes contact with the human (the person who consumes the lion), then the lion becomes human—the process has been profitable to the human. This human has engaged with the physical/material world and the process of Paticcasamuppada, becoming aware—no longer ignorant, no longer craving. The process is reversed in the Extinction in the Middle recitation of Paticcasamuppada. Here, the person is metaphorically eating the lion, because they have actively engaged with this life (Thomas 81, 110).

If we require more evidence that supports Buddhadasa’s position on the interpretation of Paticcasamuppada, we can look at another form, the Extinction in the Middle (italics indicate where the process reverses).

‘Ignorance gives rise to mental concocting;
Mental concocting gives rise to consciousness;
Consciousness gives rise to mentality/materiality;
Mentality/materiality gives rise to the sense bases;
The sense bases give rise to contact;
Contact gives rise to feeling;
Feeling gives rise to craving;
Because of the extinguishment of craving, attachment is extinguished; Because of the extinguishment of attachment, becoming is extinguished; Because of the extinguishment of becoming, birth is extinguished; Because of the extinguishment of birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, etc are extinguished.’

In this example of Paticcasamuppada, the person becomes aware of the reasons for craving and is able to rationalise the true value of the thing causing the suffering. Even though Gautama Buddha was the enlightened one, he still went through the process of his body becoming old and expiring. It is how he saw this process, and how he accepted it, which makes the difference. The recitation of Paticcasamuppada, with the extinction in the middle, is the one the Buddha would have become adept at using in his everyday life. It is the main reason he was the first Buddha. Paticcasamuppada, Extinction in the Middle, is the evidence of this process being not of a lifetime, but of a split second. The root cause of suffering is the stealthy lion under the skin, the ignorant child within, which we can extinguish, because we know where and how this rebel will attack (Thomas 103).

In 77th Pearl: The Perpetual Tree, there are references made to several texts and writers to illustrate various points. These references should not be seen as a particular preference toward one system of beliefs over another, nor as a critique of one system over another. The point has been made in other commentaries that all faiths have aspects of truth, because the Father/Source has been seeking us out. Some have heard its voice with clarity; for others the voice has been muffled by innate human weaknesses. Here, we can make the analogy of a huge, complicated jigsaw puzzle, which has been swept off a table. Pieces have been discovered and yet other pieces have been copied through a thick fog (human weakness and this realm). They appear to fit, but do not complete the original puzzle. When we stand back and look at the picture created, it becomes obvious that certain pieces stand out as having a different tone or texture. The texts that are referred to in the commentaries make some pieces of the puzzle more defined. They have been found to have clarity and authenticity, through their harmonious fit into the picture Jesus has described in the Gospel of Thomas. Batchelor’s views are used, in part, to enhance a point mentioned above. It is apparent in the lecture referenced that he had become disillusioned with the life of a monk, in both Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. This fact tends to colour his attitude toward the spiritual elements which have evolved in Buddhism. However, for the purposes of this commentary, we can see how some of his points are of relevance here.

To find the full transcript of Stephen Batchelor’s lecture search for ‘ABC Radio National, Batchelor, The Secular Dharma’.

Batchelor makes some strong points, which parallel those made for these commentaries. He points out that the Buddha’s teaching, about the impermanence of all things, has been a catalyst for the many varied applications of Buddhist practice in different places.

‘…if we look at this from an historical perspective, is that Buddhism has survived, and has flourished, precisely because it has the capacity to re-imagine itself, to re-think itself, to present itself in a different way, according to the needs of the particular people, the particular time, the culture, in which it finds itself at a given time. Buddhism is very fluid in this sense…each particular form of Buddhism that has come into being, has done so in its own peculiar way that suits and is adapted to the particular situation of its historical background.’

The point Bachelor makes here is something the Christian orthodoxy needs to consider. Certainly, when we look at the history of Christian doctrine we see that it has developed in response to the context it came from. Constantine I facilitated the creation of the Nicene Creed to unify the Christian doctrine. At the time, various bishops had different positions on how Christianity should be established within society. Constantine wanted to have a central doctrine to stop the squabbling. One could argue that his background influenced the concept of a man seen as a living god, because of his experience with the Caesar legacy. All Caesars were responsible for ensuring the deity(s) of their time were being worshipped appropriately. It was also not uncommon for the Caesar to see himself as a god. This structure of authority, which was a pyramidal one, can be seen reflected in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hierarchy. It is also reflected in the Nicene Creed. In the infancy of the twenty-first century the world has changed; Christian Orthodoxy must change with it. What science has shown us indicates that we can no longer accept the childish beliefs of a Creator God. This is the legacy of Jesus’ teaching, which sounds contradictory, but is what we discover through 77th Pearl: The Perpetual Tree. It may seem like an atheist manifesto, but by definition ‘atheist’ means someone who does not believe in a god or gods: In the Gospel of Thomas we find that God is in all things, just as It is in Jesus and in all of humanity. In this sense, our concept of god becomes a thing that connects all conscious beings.

To illustrate how people have desired something other or more than what the messenger is offering, we can look at some parallels in Buddhism. Batchelor makes some strong points about how people have always craved knowledge of things they cannot experience with their physical senses. They have wanted to know more than how to be happy in this life—they wanted to know what was next and what that looked like. Batchelor argues that the Buddha, according to the original Pali Canon, did not encourage this kind of thinking. He says:

‘And whenever the Buddha was presented these kinds of questions, or asked these questions, he wouldn’t give an answer. All he would say was, “To explore such kinds of questions, is not conducive to the path that I teach.” And the point is not to pursue these kinds of questions in the hope that Buddhism will answer them for us, but actually to simply not pursue them, and to recognise that what really is important, is not having a correct description of the state of affairs in reality. But what matters is doing something that might make a real difference in the quality of your life here and now.’

Batchelor also makes an interesting point about why institutions begin to offer solutions to problems. They desire to substantiate their position as a valid system of what they purport to represent. In Christian orthodoxy, these are the sacraments of birth, marriage, and death. Similarly, Batchelor describes how contemporary Buddhist orthodoxy has claimed a kind of technology to alleviate suffering. They offer a technique that presents itself as the answer, drawing-in people wanting this relief. Batchelor states:

‘…They like to present Buddhism as an effective technique for reducing suffering: “you’ve got a problem? OK, here’s a technique, it’s called meditation, and it’s very effective. You do it right, you’ll get rid of suffering.” That I think is, again, in reducing Buddhism to a technological strategy, a kind of a self-help process that almost claims to have a kind of quasi-scientific reliability…I think you can master all the techniques of meditation and remain just as screwed up as you were before you started.’

The attitude Batchelor describes here is also reflected in the way Buddhist monks withdraw from conventional life—but this is not a sustainable practice for the majority. In Buddhadasa’s book, mentioned above, he suggests that one should avoid the enjoyment of nature and the simple pleasures of eating, because this encourages the process of craving. As Batchelor has suggested, such prescribed methods do not guarantee success. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus asks that we engage with the world, not withdraw from it. Moreover, through the process of ‘motion and rest’ (Thomas 50), at the end of this journey, we ‘[become] passersby’ (Thomas 42). In Thomas 7, we are asked to participate in (consume) the physical/material existence, so that we might grow and turn these experiences into the humanthe living spiritwhich is the fruit Jesus loves most. This is why, in Thomas 90, Jesus tells us ‘[His] yoke…is gentle’.

In Stephen Batchelor’s book ‘Buddhism without Beliefs’ (published by G.P. Putnam’s and Son’s, 1997), he explains the way the Four Noble Truthsshould be perceived and practiced in our everyday lives. Batchelor stresses that Gautama Buddha did not intend these truths (observations) to be a kind of mantra (which become passive recitations). Rather, they should be metaphors for confronting the individual experience of suffering and for how to overcome these obstacles. They should not be used to console those who want a rebirth, which leads into wealth and prosperity. He also suggests that the Buddhist should be an active Agnosticnot desiring or denying the existence of a God (Ibid page 18-19). Batchelor asserts that because the Buddha Dharma has become part of a religionimbued with dogma and discourse about the metaphysicalit has diverged from the purpose it was intended for. Here, there is a direct parallel with the way Jesus’ teachings had been absorbed into a culture of fear: Fear of a creator God and His pending wrath for humanity’s wickedness. This was a wickedness that was not seeded and perpetuated by men themselves, but by an adversary of God. This false perception sees Jesus turned into a vengeful deity in the last Gospel of John (Revelations), rather than the self-sacrificing, all-forgiving man in the Gospel of Thomas and the other gospels. This erroneous attitude reflects the weakness of humanity for place. They desire a temple on a hill to house and worship their God, to ratify the myths and legends of the past. Jesus taught us that the Kingdom exists in all of humanity; it cannot be contained in a temple or through dogma.

If we consider that the soul does not die, though the flesh that houses it will, then our focus needs to be on nurturing the growth of the mind/spirit. When a person accepts the spiritual nature of all humans they consume the lion—that is, they interact with the physical world but they are not harmed or disturbed by it. The opposite is true if the person is enamoured of the physical world and denies the essence that is within. The life force that moves between all things will continue to pass through these bodies but never truly live. Although the lion will manifest in human form, the essential soul becomes a victim of this world. Jesus asks that we interactwith the world; but first we should restrain it. Through the process of containing its impact on the mind we can benefit from what it has to offer. This enables growth from the experiences we encounter in this life, unharmed (Thomas 35 and 42).

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