Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity

Chapter 5:
Fact and fiction in
the life of Jesus
Part 4


Some of the most bizarre things about Jesus were the miracles he is said to have performed. One of the most famous of these was bringing Lazarus back from the dead. Lazarus had been dead for at least four days and was presumably in heaven, while his family were heartbroken and grieving. In raising him from the dead, Jesus certainly demonstrated his power but what did Lazarus and his family get out of it? Lazarus was removed from heaven and brought back to "this vale of tears" only to have to die all over again some time in the future while his family would also have to go through grieving and distress all over again (Jn 11:1-44).

To the Buddhist this miracle, if it even really happened, seems to be unnecessary, and even cruel. How much more practical and humane was the Buddha's approach to death. On one occasion a young mother named Kisagotami came to the Buddha with her dead son, deranged with grief and pleading with the Buddha to give her son medicine. Full of compassion the Buddha told her to go and get a mustard seed from a house where no one had ever died. In the process of looking for such a seed, Kisagotami gradually came to realize that death is an integral part of life and she overcame her grief (Dhammapada Atthakatta, Book 8,13). Jesus performed showy miracles which seemed to leave people much as they were, the Buddha gently and skilfully led people to understanding. This is what the Buddha meant when he said that education is the highest miracle (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.11).

Another miracle where Jesus seems to have given little thought to the consequences of what he was doing was the one he supposedlyperformed at Godara. A man was possessed by devils, and just before Jesus exorcized them the devils asked Jesus if he would send them into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus obliged, sending the devils into the pigs, which then rushed screaming down the side of a cliff into a lake where they drowned (Mk 5:1-13). The man who had been possessed by the devil must have been very grateful for this but one wonders what the owners of the pigs would have thought. The loss of their animals would have caused them great financial hardship. Not surprisingly, we are told that after this incident the people from the nearby village came to Jesus and begged him to leave their territory (Mk 5:17). Note that Matthew tells this same story but he exaggerates it, claiming the not one but two men were exorcized (Matt 8:28-32).

This supposed miracle also highlights Jesus' utter disregard for nature. He could simply have expelled the devils but instead he chose to do it in a most cruel way by driving to their deaths a large number of completely harmless and innocent animals. On another occasion he used his miraculous powers to kill a fig tree simply because it could not bear fruit (Matt 21:18-20). Apparently he never considered that animals could have eaten its leaves, birds could have nested in branches, travellers could have rested in its shade and its roots would have helped prevent erosion of the soil by the rain and the wind - which probably explains why the tree had been left growing. No advantage at all came from killing the tree was little more than an act of wanton vandalism.

While some of Jesus' miracles were pointless others seem to have verged on the ridiculous. Once Jesus was invited to a wedding. After some time there was Ii wine left to drink so Jesus turned several large jars of water into wine (Jn 2:1-1l). No doubt the host must have appreciated not having to go out to buy more alcohol but it does seem a bit incongruous. that God should incarnate as a man, come earth and use his powers just so that people wouldn't run out of drinks at the parties.


What we have said above indicates that while some of Jesus' teachings were good others were cruel, impractical, and in some cases just silly. And perhaps it is not surprising that not only have Christians often failed to practise Jesus' teachings, but he often also failed to practise them himself. He taught that we should love our neighbour but he seems to have problems doing this himself. He believed that his teaching could lead people to heaven and yet he specifically instructed his disciples not to preach the Gospel to anyone but his own people, the Jews.

Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 10:5-6).

When a poor distressed woman came to Jesus begging for help he refused to help her simply because she was not Jewish. Teaching the Gospel to Canaanites was, he said, like taking food from children and throwing it to dogs.

A Canaanite woman from the vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession". Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us". He answered: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel". The woman came and knelt before him, "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs" (Matt 15:22-26).

It was only after strong urging from his disciples that Jesus finally decided to help the woman. So much for loving one's neighbour. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, but again he seemed to have difficulties doing this. When the Pharisees criticized him he responded with a tirade of curses and insults (e.g. Jn 8:42-47, Matt 23:13-36).

Jesus said that we should not judge others (Matt 7:12) and claimed that he himself judged no one (Jn 8:15). But despite this he was constantly judging and condemning others, often in a harsh and sweeping manner (Jn 8:42-47, Matt 23:13-16)

In conformity with the Old Testament Jesus taught that we must honour our mother and father (Matt 19:19) but on other occasions he taught and practised the exact opposite.

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26).

This demand that to love Jesus we must be prepared to hate others, even our own parents, seems to be very much at odds with the idea of honouring parents - let alone with the idea of loving our neighbour. Once Jesus' mother and brothers came to see him while he was preaching only to be rudely rebuffed.

And his mother and brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him, and they said to him, "Your mother and brothers are outside, asking for you". And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and brothers!" (Mk 3:31-35).

Once when his mother spoke to him, he snapped at her: "0 woman, what have you to do with me?" (Jn 2:4). And yet while he acted like this to his parents he condemned the Pharisees for their supposed hypocrisy over the law to honour mother and father (Matt 15:3-6, Mk 7:10-13).

In some instances, it is difficult to accuse Jesus of failing to practise what he preached for the simple reason that he taught contradictory things. Christians are used to thinking of him as "gentle Jesus meek and mild", because of his command "to turn the other cheek" and to "not resist an evil person" (Matt 5:39). And indeed Jesus seems to have acted like this sometimes. But at other times he clearly saw his role as a violent one.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace but the sword. I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man's enemies will be the members of his own household (Matt 10:34-36).

Certainly he saw nothing wrong with using violence when he thought it was necessary. When he saw the money changers in the temple he lost his temper and lashed out with violence.

So he made a whip out of cords and drove all from the temple areas: he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (Jn 2:15).

Before his arrest Jesus was expecting trouble so he told his disciples to prepare themselves by getting weapons.

If you do not have a sword sell your cloak and buy one (Lk 22:36).

When he was arrested there was a fight during which "one of Jesus' companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear" (Matt 26:51). It is very difficult for the Buddhist to reconcile such behaviour with the idea of being perfect. To retaliate against one's accusers, to lose one's temper and to encourage others to carry weapons and use them seem to negate the whole idea of moral perfection.

At this stage it might be good to point out that while most of Jesus' teachings are inadequate and ill-conceived, some are excellent. His teachings on love, forgiveness, humility and service to the sick and poor are worthy of the highest praise. However, none of this is unique. Such ideas are to be found, sometimes more fully, in the teachings of the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mahavira, Guru Nanak etc, most of whom lived centuries before Jesus. What is good in Jesus' Teachings is not unique and what is unique is not particularly good.

Christians have great difficulty understanding why Buddhists and other non-Christians cannot accept Jesus as the Lord and saviour as they themselves do. But when we read the life and teachings of the Buddha - a man who smiled at abuse, remained calm when provoked and who always discouraged violence - the reason for their rejection becomes clear.

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