Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jesus and the Buddha: Different Concepts of Compassion, and Suffering

People like to draw comparisons. They like to find common ground and generalities (this is where I need the Nepali grammatical form “inchha”—which designates a generality, but not without exceptions. The above statements in English just seem like blanket statements that can be shot through with holes). One common ground that people have pointed out to me within Buddhism and Christianity are the concepts of compassion and suffering. Below, I imperfectly compare and contrast two stories, where both Jesus and the Buddha had moments of compassion, and encountered suffering people.

First, this story is told within Buddhism:

Kisa Gautami was a young woman from a wealthy family who was happily married to an important merchant. When her only son was one-year-old, he fell ill and died suddenly. Kisa Gautami was struck with grief, she could not bear the death of her only child. Weeping and groaning, she took her dead baby in her arms and went from house to house begging all the people in the town for news of a way to bring her son back to life.
Of course, nobody could help her but Kisa Gautami would not give up. Finally she came across a Buddhist who advised her to go and see the Buddha himself.
When she carried the dead child to the Buddha and told Him her sad story, He listened with patience and compassion, and then said to her, "Kisa Gautami, there is only one way to solve your problem. Go and find me four or five mustard seeds from any family in which there has never been a death."
Kisa Gautami was filled with hope, and set off straight away to find such a household. But very soon she discovered that every family she visited had experienced the death of one person or another. At last, she understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself — that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once Kisa Guatami accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She took the child's body away and later returned to the Buddha to become one of His followers.

Taken from

Now, compare and contrast that with this story of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke:

Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.

So what similarities do you see between the two stories? Both concern a mother who had lost her only child to death (albeit one was a baby and one was a grown man). In both, Jesus and the Buddha are catalysts to change within the story. Both Buddha and Jesus had “compassion,” but that’s where the similarities leave off.  

Every time the Bible records Jesus having compassion, he does something: he feeds the hungry, he teaches people, he raises people from the dead. Compassion leads to actions. When the Buddha has compassion, it about amounts to having nice thoughts about whoever is speaking to him.

Both Jesus and Buddha encountered people who had a problem, namely, an experience with death. In other versions of this story, Buddha is sitting under a tree in the woods starving himself to death trying to reach enlightenment when Gautami comes to him; yet in the story above, Jesus initiates interaction with the funeral procession. In other stories, Jesus enters into the suffering with people, goes into their houses and lives among them. And of course, Jesus entered into the greatest suffering by bearing sin on a cross. While the Buddha basically tells this distraught woman to “suck it up—its your lot in life to suffer and experience death,” Jesus returned the dead to the living (see also the records of Jairus’ daughter, and returning Lazarus to Mary and Martha) and ultimately, his death and resurrection allow us to experience eternal life, and not taste true death.

While each story deals with issues of compassion and suffering, the concepts are completely different. Within Christianity, compassion is demonstrated in action, rather than just nice thoughts, and suffering is not something to be “sucked up” but rather, eliminated through a savior.