While born and raised in the United States in a reasonably affluent family with genetic heritage hailing predominantly from northern and western Europe, I have spent a fair portion of life studying the martial arts, culture and religion of Japan, China and India. Growing up with familial ties to three denominations of orthodox Christianity, specifically Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and United Methodist, after a series of personally incomprehensible debates with those in power within the Christian faith I converted to Buddhism with influences from the Vipassana and Zen traditions while maintaining belief-based ties to the familiar Christian heritage. During subsequent studies and contemplation, I had the opportunity to come across a plethora of information that both claims and decries strong ties and bonds between Christianity and Buddhism. Are the teachings of the Buddha and the Christ truly similar with strong parallels? If so, are those parallels coincidental, the direct effect of a great yet undocumented historically collision between the two major religions or the indirect effect of mystics who were able to see through the cultural influences of religion to a greater Truth? This paper will seek to summarize available information in order to find answers to those questions.
The Development of Two Religions
The roads from Hinduism to Buddhism and from Judaism to Christianity run parallel in many aspects, even though Buddhism originated in India five centuries before Christianity began in what is modern day Israel. It is widely held in Christianity that Jesus was born a Jew and ultimately challenged the priesthood of the Jewish Temples and many of the cultural and religious norms by casting off the Jewish laws and replacing them with an easier path to Heaven. It is also widely held in Buddhism that Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – was born a prince in Hindu-dominated India and ultimately challenged the power of the Hindu religion by creating what became known as the Eight-Fold Noble Path or the Middle Path to Enlightenment.
The Buddha was strongly supported by a community of mystics and followers throughout his life and died of old age many years after he began teaching. Jesus, on the other hand had devout followers who were not strong enough to support him through his own trials. In the end, one of his followers betrayed him, another denied him and the rest deserted him in his greatest hour of need before his crucifixion at the hands of Pilate. The Buddha was able to teach and expand his reach for many years while Jesus’ teachings were shortened to approximately one year, three at best (Hooper, 2008).
Buddha and Jesus
Many parallels can be drawn between the well documented portions of the life of the Buddha and the life of the Christ. The Canonical Gospels that describe the life of Jesus were not written until well decades after his crucifixion and death (National Geographic, 1996). Buddhism, like Christianity, also began as an oral tradition that was not immediately documented and, as such, none of the Buddha’s actual words can be reviewed and studied today (Hooper, 2008). Buddhist history tells us that Siddhartha Gautama was tempted by Mara, the Evil One, and awoke to Enlightenment after he was victorious over all of Mara’s temptations (Hooper, 2008). The Canonical Gospels all tell of the forty days of fasting in the desert during which Jesus was victorious over repeated temptations from Satan, the devil (New Testament, New International Version). The Canonical Gospels all tell stories where those who heard him were amazed by the authority and wisdom Jesus held when compared to the Jewish leaders and teachers of the time. Buddhist texts tell similar stories of audiences who were captivated by the experiences that had changed Siddhartha Gautama and altered him into the Enlightened person who became known as the Buddha (Hooper, 2008). Hooper (2008), in his research and treatise on the common teachings of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism notes:
Similarities, on the other hand, often do call out for an explanation. How is it that two teachers who lived during different eras, in countries widely separated, and whose religions and cultures were quite different, make almost identical statements about spirituality and the meaning of life? Immediately the historian and the theologian will suspect a causal link. One philosophy or religion must have influenced another. More often than not, these suspicions turn out to be correct.
There is no question that Hinduism was the foundation for Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama was born in India, and Buddhism in the beginning was considered just another Hindu sect. For the first two hundred and fifty years of its existence, Buddhism’s influence was strictly limited to the borders of India. By the time of its first missionary success in Ceylon, around 240 CE, Buddhism had already broken down into a number of sects. Each sect produced new literature, and the words of those texts were attributed to the historical Buddha.
Buddhism and Hinduism certainly had some influence on Greek philosophy, and Greek philosophy, in turn, influenced first century Judaism, early orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism. But Buddhism and Hinduism may have had a more direct influence on Gnostic Christianity. (pg. 9-10)
There are differences between the teachings of Jesus, at least according to Orthodox Christianity, and of Buddha that must be noted and observed. According to Orthodox Christianity, the suffering of the human condition is due to original sin as began in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. According to Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism, however, the suffering of the human condition is largely due to ignorance. While Orthodox Christianity focuses many of its teachings on suffering the teachings of Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism offer that all material things, including possessions and one’s own body, are impermanent and giving up attachment to that which is impermanent ends suffering. It has been argued that the Orthodox Christ came to earth to save humanity from sin and death, yet the Gnostic Christ, in similar fashion to the path from ignorance to Enlightenment offered by the Buddha, came to dispel illusion and ignorance. While the vast majority of Orthodox Christianity believes that one’s soul goes to heaven or hell upon death, many among Gnostic Christianity and Buddhism believe in reincarnation of the immortal soul (Hooper, 2008).
To India and Beyond – Theoretical Travels of Jesus
The lost years of Jesus are generally accepted to concern the Biblically undocumented time span between Jesus’ childhood and the approximately one year period in which Jesus taught that marked the historical beginning of the Christian movement. The Gospel of Matthew summarizes the genealogy, birth and first two years of Jesus (Matthew 1:1 – 2:23, New International Version) before jumping nearly three decades in time to when Jesus traveled to the Desert of Judea to meet John the Baptist and be baptized in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:1-17, New International Version). The Gospel of Mark completely ignores the childhood and young adult life of Jesus, beginning with an introduction of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-8, New International Version) and moving directly into the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and the temptation of Jesus by Satan (Mark 1:9-13, New International Version) prior to Jesus’ calling to the first disciples in Galilee (Mark 1:14-20, New International Version). The Gospel of John begins with a reportedly self-written introduction of John the Baptist (John 1:1-28, New International Version) followed by John’s first encounter with Jesus (John 1:29-34, New International Version) and the introduction of the first disciples (John 1:35-42, New International Version). The Gospel of Luke provides us with the Bible’s most comprehensive description of the life of Jesus prior to his teachings and ministry. Luke begins with the foretelling of the births of both John (Luke 1:5-25, New International Version) and Jesus (Luke 1:26-38, New International Version) before telling of the birth of both (Luke 1:57-66 and 2:1-20, New International Version). After telling of an incident that occurred during Jesus’ twelfth year of life (Luke 2:41-50, New International Version), Luke simply describes the passing years by saying “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52, New International Version) before moving to the meeting of Jesus and John the Baptist and re-aligning with the time lines presented by Matthew, Mark and John. While the text of the Christian Bible appears to ignore nearly two decades of Jesus’ life, other texts and researchers offer the potential for insight into what would naturally be considered very formative years in the life of Jesus.
Many of the iconic images of Jesus that have come from the European-based Christian churches present Jesus appearing to be of western European descent, an image that may have been the foundation for the theory that Jesus traveled to Britain during his lost years. In his book “Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries and the Dawn of Christianity”, Gordon Strachan described his theory and claim that Jesus traveled to Britain that was later the foundation of the documentary titled “And Did Those Feet”. While most would consider a pilgrimage by Jesus from Palestine to Britain quite fanciful, the idea is celebrated in England’s unofficial national anthem as originally written in poem by William Blake in 1808 and set to music a century later by Hubert Parry. An examination of the Bible from a numerology standpoint would also appear to link the habits and teachings of Jesus to numbers significant to Pythagoras and Stonehenge (Harrison, 2010). While Strachan and others hold that Jesus traveled to Britain, the subsequent teachings of Jesus were notably inconsistent with the dual-theistic and highly agrarian Pagan beliefs common throughout Western Europe of the time period.
Another less known theory involves Jesus traveling to the Americas during the lost years. Anthropologist and author L. Taylor Hansen drew from Native American legend and mythology that a white prophet traveled through many parts of America in writing his book, He Walked the Americas (1963). Michael Hickenbotham, in his book Answering Challenging Mormon Questions (2004), offers a Mormon-held belief that the white prophet described in Native American mythology was Jesus Christ in line with the tale in the Book of Mormon that Jesus visited the Native Americans after his resurrection. While held by some Mormon believers, the potential for travel from Palestine to the Americas at the beginning of the first century – nearly 1.5 millennia before the European discovery of the Americas by those seeking trade routes to India – is almost infinitesimally small.
The more renowned and globally discussed theory of Jesus’ travel during the aforementioned lost years comes from the book The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, written by Nicholas Notovitch and first published in 1894. Notovitch, a Russian-born Jew who converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity, was a journalist who visited both India and Tibet in the 1880s. After suffering injuries from a horseback riding accident, Notovitch reportedly came under the care of Buddhist monks at the Hemis Lamasery in Leh, Kashmir, near the border of Tibet where he was allowed to read and translate scrolls that detailed the time period where Issa studied Buddhism in India and Tibet. Notovitch’s diary and book became the foundation for a number of other books discussing Jesus time reportedly spent in India and followers of this theory have also documented at least six other historians who reportedly have viewed the scrolls described by Notovitch (The Missing Years of Jesus, 2011). In The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus’ 17-Year Journey to the East, Elizabeth Clare Prophet expands upon Notovitch’s work and references a number of Buddhist manuscripts that document Jesus’ travels to India, Nepal, Ladakh and Tibet. In her discussion about those who doubted Notovitch’s writings, Prophet noted that those who reported that they could not locate the scrolls had no greater proof of their non-existence than Notovitch had proof of their existence (Prophet, 1998). Many followers of Notovitch’s work found coincidence and further validation in the use of the name Issa for Jesus in the Buddhist scrolls and manuscripts as the name for Jesus in both the Arabic language and the Islamic Qur’an is Isa.
Edgar Goodspeed, among others, was not convinced of the tales of Jesus having spent time in India and Tibet. In his research, Goodspeed found no record or individual who could confirm that Notovitch sustained a broken leg and was treated at the Hemis Lamasery; however, Goodspeed did find a report that Notovitch was treated for a toothache in a hospital in nearby Leh. The chief lama of the Hemis Lamasery, according to Goodspeed, denounced Notovitch’s writings as nothing but lies (Goodspeed, 1956). More recently, it has been historically documented that Buddhism did not arrive in Tibet until the seventh century (Hooper, 2008) and the Hemis Lamasery’s own history shows it was founded in the 16th century – making it unlikely that such scrolls, even if they existed, would be stored there (Hemis Monastery, 2011).
Discussion and Conclusion
It is a difficult matter to ascertain, determine and conclude as to what truly occurred in Jesus’ life from approximately age twelve to thirty. The Canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that became the first half of the New Testament in the Bible were all written in ancient Greek between 65 A.D. and 95 A.D. – decades after the crucifixion and death of Jesus as was described among them (National Geographic, 1996). The Gnostic Gospels, written in the ancient Coptic language spoken in Egypt until sometime near the 17th century, were lost due to suppression and destruction from orthodox Christianity until the 1945 discovery of an ancient library in Nag ‘Hammadi, Egypt, containing copies of some ancient Gnostic texts (National Geographic, 1996). The oldest Hindu texts from India were written in Sanskrit while the predominant volumes among the oldest Buddhist texts were written in Pali (Hooper, 2008). Compounding the issues of translation is the combined reality that many, if not the vast majority, of the existing texts were written years if not decades after the actual events occurred and other texts that may bring knowledge and understanding on the topic are likely lost or destroyed given the centuries that have passed through history. While this researcher entered this project expecting to find additional evidence and documentation to support the travels of Jesus to India and Tibet as presented orally from Buddhist teachers and mentors, upon research of historical factuality into the various theories of the travels of Jesus during the years unaccounted for in the Canonical Gospels of the Bible it can be readily concluded that none of the theories of great travel – Americas, Britain, India or Tibet – are plausible when examined with a critical eye.
According to Hooper (2008), “If Jesus was an enlightened being like the Buddha, then his wisdom came from the very same Source. Jesus took the road less traveled: the road within.” (p. 184). Like the Buddha, Jesus is considered to be a great spiritual master among sects of many of the world’s dominant religions. While there may be inter-religious debate as to the Enlightenment of the Buddha and as to the divinity of Jesus, the reported teachings and sayings of both Jesus and Buddha can be found interwoven into beliefs, practices and teachings among many contemporary Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Pagans and Wiccans. Perhaps Buddhism and Christianity are interconnected through actual historical interactions or, more likely, the two are interconnected through the findings of greater Truth by two great teachers – findings and truth that continue today to be sought by those who strive to unravel mysteries across centuries of history and translation.
Goodspeed, E. (1956). Famous Biblical Hoaxes. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI.
Hansen, L. (1963). He Walked the Americas. Amherst Press: Amherst, WI.
Harrison, T. (2010). Jesus in Britain: And Did Those Feet … Walk to Stonehenge? Retrieved on December 2, 2011, from http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/3271/jesus_in_britain.html
Hemis Monastery. (2011). In Hemis Monastery & Taktsang Repa. Retrieved on December 2, 2011, from http://www.drukpa-hemis.org
Hickenbotham, M. (2004). Answering Challenging Mormon Questions. Cedar Fort: Springville, UT.
Hooper, R. (2008). Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Lou Tzu: The Parallel Sayings. Sanctuary Publications: Sedona, AZ.
National Geographic. (1996). The Lost Gospel of Judas. Retrieved on November 30, 2011, from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/
New International Version. (1987). The Student Bible: New International Version, 4th Printing. The Zondervan Corporation: Grand Rapids, MI.
Prophet, E. (1988). The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus’ 17-Year Journey to the East. Summit University Pess: Gardiner, MT.
The Missing Years of Jesus. (n.d.). In Tomb of Jesus. Retrieved on December 1, 2011, from http://www.tombofjesus.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=90&Itemid=61
© 2011 – 2014, Jeremy Liebbe. All rights reserved.