I have to admit, the story of Jesus’s birth is a really cool story. This past Sunday I saw a modern retelling of it set to the music of the Beatles and I’m sure that I enjoyed it as much as any of the most devout believers in the audience. In the interest of honesty, however, I must also admit that I could never quite believe that the story really unfolded as it is purported it to have unfolded. Sure, the part about the Immaculate Conception had me wondering from a very early age. But even before I knew much about the biological implications of such a feat I had other questions about the storyline. Think about it. God rearranged the heavens so that a star marked the place of birth of his Son – so that everyone would know that the King was born. Wise men witnessed the appearance of that star and had their hearts moved to the point of following it and concluding that, yes, Jesus was a newborn king. But then the story just sort of ends there. Years later we find that Jesus has grown up to be a carpenter’s son of no particular standing save for his precocious insight into religious and spiritual matters. Is that what happens to newborn kings – they just go off and live their ordinary lives? A funny thing happened on the way to my becoming a Buddhist, though. I stumbled upon the story of the Buddha’s birth and, lo and behold, it was just as miraculous as that of Jesus! In fact, the similarities are striking.
The Buddha’s birth story begins (sort of) with his previous incarnation living out his existence in the heavenly realm of Tusita and contemplating whether conditions are right for his rebirth as a bodhisattva in our humble earthly realm. He concludes that they are and proceeds to die to that world and descend into his mother’s womb in this one. At that time “this ten-thousandfold world system shook and quaked and trembled, and there too a great immeasurable light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared” (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 123.) Now, the future Buddha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, is not presumed to have been a virgin at the time, but upon her realization that she was pregnant “no sensual thought arose in her concerning men, and she was inaccessible to any man having a lustful mind.” For the duration of her pregnancy she was blissful and without fatigue or affliction of any kind. And for the duration of her pregnancy she could see the future Buddha inside of her, fully formed, as if her flesh were translucent. After the birth process was complete, two spouts of water seemed to pour forth from the sky in order to cleanse the future Buddha and his mother. He then stood upright and proceeded to take seven steps to the north, where he then declared himself to be “foremost in the world” – the World Honored One.
Think about the similarities between these two stories:
- Both involve beings with supreme intelligence and omniscience who survey the state of humankind on this planet earth and decide that a savior must be dispatched. In Jesus’s case, God sent him as his own incarnation in order to save humankind from its wrongful ways. In Buddha’s case, he sent himself as his own final incarnation in a sequence of many lives spent as a bodhisattva.
- Each involves a miraculous conception that bridges heavenly and earthly realms with some sort of “biological creativity.”
- Each involves a cosmological event of some kind. In the Buddha’s case “this ten-thousandfold world shook and quaked.” In Jesus’s case, it was the somewhat more humble appearance of a star that was not previously in existence.
- The mothers of each of these beings either were exceptionally “virtuous” to begin with or at least became so for the entire time of gestation.
- Both mothers paid a huge price for their role in bringing their respective children into this world. Mahamaya died shortly after giving birth to the Buddha. Mary, of course, was destined to see her son tortured and killed at a very young age.
- Both Jesus and Buddha are seen in some sense as having arrived here on earth fully formed. In the case of the Buddha we are told as much. He is walking and talking within moments of birth. We see this attitude indirectly in the paintings of early Christian artists who portray the Christ child as a tiny man as opposed to an infant.
- Both stories contain an incongruency between the circumstances of birth and those of subsequent youth. In the case of Jesus, a king grows up to be “just another” carpenter’s son. In the case of the Buddha, he grows up as “just another” prince until worldly events transpire that nudge him to take the next step in his journey. Contrary to what one might expect given the circumstances of their respective births, neither seems to have the immediate, perfect and unshakable knowledge of his divine origin. In other words, without the respective birth stories each might be seen as “just another” human who has gone on to receive incredible insight into the workings of humankind and the entire world.
- Both Buddha and Jesus go on to provide teachings to the world that profoundly transform the lives of those who truly take them to heart.
What are we to make of these similarities? I’d love to know what others think, but here are a few of my thoughts: Jesus and Buddha are both representative holy figures of the Axial Age, a time of unprecedented spiritual development throughout the world. Both birth stories seem to be gleaned from the same mythic structure in the way that Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell might describe our archetypal myths. Both stories fulfill the same underlying needs of those who believe them. There is a divine plan, for example, an order of some kind to both the universe and our lives. Furthermore, knowledge of this plan is imparted to us via some intercessionary figure that is some combination of human and divine. There also seems to be some great need for the birth of such figures to be out of the ordinary, to be extraordinarily different, to be miraculous in some way. Not everyone has the will, capacity or constitution to think of Jesus or Buddha merely as wise and enlightened teachers. Some need to think of these figures as beings that they might pray to or call on to this very day. As such, these stories are incredibly powerful ones, if not for the sake of one’s soul, then at least for one’s psychological wellbeing.
Merry Christmas, everyone! And I do mean that with all sincerity.
The Visit of the Wise-Men by Heinrich Hofmann via:
Acchariya-abbhuta Sutta – Wonderful and Marvellous (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 123) The teachings of the Buddha: The middle length discourses of the Buddha: A new translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Nanomoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi). Wisdom Publications, Boston. In association with the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank