Updated: Jul 14, 2019
Did Buddha and Jesus have the same mother? Of course not. But if you read both accounts and didn't know any better, you might wonder.
The Buddha lived 500 years before Jesus. After the Buddha’s passing, a record of what he said was maintained through oral tradition, much the same way that there was an oral tradition about the life and teachings of Jesus. The Pali Canon is one of the earliest of these written records and the only complete early version that has survived intact. The Pali Canon is of noteworthy importance because it is a single cohesive collection of the Buddha’s teachings in his own words.
I’ve been reading the Pali Canon and one thing that has jumped out at me has been how the portrayals of the Buddha’s life are quite similar to how the Bible presents Jesus. Some of the similarities include:
• A cosmic/divine dimension to the Buddha’s birth whereby the Buddha descends from a heavenly realm into his mother’s womb
• A special innocence, blessedness, virtuousness conferred upon the Buddha’s mother
• Unique circumstances surrounding his mother’s pregnancy and the Buddha’s birth, born in perfect purity, and celebrated by celestial beings
• The Buddha arises in the world for the welfare and liberation of the multitude
• The declaration at Buddha’s birth that a great cosmic power, radiance, and light has entered the world
• The Buddha as a child grasping the significance of his identity and calling
• The Buddha having unparalleled insight, understanding, wisdom, virtue, compassion, and love
• The Buddha portrayed in both cosmic/divine/mystical terms, and earthly/human/mundane terms
• The Buddha working out the truth of his identity and wisdom in the context of life’s challenges, struggles, and suffering
• The Buddha’s experience of enlightenment and the cosmic approval of him and his wisdom as the vehicle/manifestation of salvation in the world
• The Buddha imparts his message and teachings to a small group of devoted followers/pupils, and spreads his insights and wisdom among the people as he goes
Keep in mind that the Buddha lived 500 years before Jesus. The obvious question would be: What accounts for these similarities? There are at least the following possibilities:
1. It was coincidence. Of all the possibilities, I would take this one as the most problematic to believe.
2. The Biblical writers borrowed from the oral tradition about the Buddha to create a more dynamic portrayal of Jesus. This is possible; these oral traditions about Buddha could have been passed along the Silk Road and adopted by Biblical writers.
3. Both Buddha and Jesus are portrayed in part according to an archetype associated with human beings of uncommon, profound, and breakthrough insight, understanding, and wisdom. In other words, there is a collectively-inherited unconscious idea or pattern of thought, that is universally present, in individual psyches. In this case, the archetype would be of the enlightened one/savior. The unconscious idea or pattern would include:
• a unique and special birth of the enlightened one/savior into the world, holding cosmic significance
• honor, purity, and blessedness bestowed upon the mother
• a liberator who arises for the salvation of all
• unparalleled in their transcendent and human characteristics
• awareness at a young age of their special identity and calling as the enlightened one/savior
• following the path of trials, difficulties, hardships and suffering to fulfill their calling
• a moment or experience of cosmic enlightenment or liberation
• entrusting truths and teachings to a small group of devoted pupils or followers
If you do further digging around you find many of these same themes applied to other religious or spiritual leaders, teachers, and personalities since Jesus. Presumably, if 200 years from now another Buddha/Jesus-esk person comes along, you are likely to find these same themes once again.
What exactly does all this mean? Someone might say that it means that religions knowingly and corruptly create fake stories or embellish the truth about their prized guru to establish their superiority. Or, one might say that human beings use a common framework to enshrine the memory, message, and messenger in cases when a person has a profoundly liberating impact upon humankind.
By the way, this framework has some useful and inspiring ideas associated with it that are relevant to all of us, including:
1. The inexplicable and universal significance of the birth of every human being
2. Esteeming mothers and motherhood as the midwives of liberation and enlightenment
3. The universal and liberative impact of true understanding and wisdom
4. A transcendent/spiritual and earthly/practical aspect to living the truth
5. Hardship and suffering as a part of transformation and self-actualization
6. Preserving our best lessons, insights, understandings, and wisdom for generations to come