Why the Buddha is a Better Modern Role Model Than Jesus

Jesus says a lot of great things – don’t get me wrong.  But too often he, at best, fails to comment on some of the most important issues of the 21st Century.  At worst, he perpetuates a morality we have and should leave behind.  Again, there’re still lots of amazing lessons coming out of the Gospels that modern men and women desperately need to hear.  But on some of the most important current issues he either doesn’t say enough or we need to flat out ignore him.  This is all of course made so much worse by the fact too many Americans still look to Jesus as their guiding, or even only, moral role model.

“What Would Jesus Do?” is an increasingly narrow question to ask.   We need some diversity.  We need new role models for a new world – even if they’ve been around for quite a while already.  So, may I suggest, in addition to asking yourself “WWJD?” also asking “WWBD?”

Below are a five lessons we need to hear in the 21st Century that the Buddha can provide, but where Jesus unfortunately fails to help.

Even Our Role Models Need Intellectual Humility

The scriptures have problems – whether they’re Christian or Buddhist.  We have to start by admitting this.  The days of infallibility, role models that assume airs of perfection, and the idea there is any ‘obviousness’ in morality and religion are over.  And good riddance!

So first, we need a role model that can admit when they’re wrong, who can accept dissent, and who will give us an example of how to change our mind when confronted with new evidence and arguments.  At this task, Jesus fails.

Jesus said, in no uncertain terms, that “I am the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6)”  Right after this in the rest of that passage Jesus claims omniscience since whatever he says is “not on his own authority” but directly on behalf of God the Father.  Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say, “oops, no, you’re right.”   His views never changed or grew.  He just had the answers.  Even as a young child, as the Gospels go, he was teaching the oldest Rabbi’s what was up.

The Buddha on the other hand started from a place of ignorance – a place we all must realize we start from.  He explored one option, then another, and found them wanting.  He was wrong again and again and grew as a person.  Enlightenment was difficult and wasn’t guaranteed or handed to him through some omniscient being.  Even after enlightenment, the Buddha still admitted he was wrong in some cases.  Once, when his disciples argued with him, he actually changed his mind about letting women become monks.

Think Things Through for Yourself

The idea of directly receiving divine omniscience is enough to shut down any need to think critically for yourself.  But if divine knowledge isn’t enough, you also have to believe on faith.  Who can forget the story of Doubting Thomas who Jesus rebuked for suspending belief until he got some evidence?  “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. (John 20:29)”  Paul later defines faith as “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 1:1)”

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”

The Buddha, on the other hand, stresses over and over the importance of working things out on your own.  Of course we all need teachers to help us, but don’t take anything just on authority.  If it doesn’t work, then scrap it – even if it came directly from the Buddha!  For the sake of space, here’s a great discussion of the Kalama sutra where the Buddha addresses these issues most directly.  Personally, I love the Zen Buddhist koan:  When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.  Long story short: this koan reminds us that we shouldn’t blindly attach ourselves to anything, even (our conception of) the Buddha.

If Marriage isn’t About Happiness, Get Divorced

A little intellectual humility might have gone a long way for Jesus, who was just plain wrong on a bunch of things: divorce being the clearest example.  Not even conservative Christians agree with Jesus on this one.  In no uncertain terms, Jesus says, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)” Strong words!  Spousal abuse?  Don’t love each other anymore?  Too bad.

The Buddha in contrast thought that marriage was about happiness, although he spoke precious little about the institution.  For him it was a civil, secular issue and not some sacred ritual about two becoming one flesh, or some other divine plan.  Be compassionate, concerned with others’ well being, and try to work it out, of course.  But if it doesn’t produce happiness in your lives, then you should move on.

Violence is Just Not OK

Mahavira, The Torchbearer of Ahimsa in Jainism

Mahavira, The Torchbearer of Ahimsa in Jainism

Christians love the “turn the other cheek” quotations, but isn’t it somewhat odd that a prophet that apparently promoted non-violence should end up producing a religion with such history of violence?  The answer is that Jesus actually wasn’t really all that peaceful.  For instance, people love Jesus’ rebuke about not “living by the sword”.  But that is only one version of the story.  In Luke’s version, before the confrontation at the Garden with Judas and the Roman soldiers, Jesus first commands his disciples “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. (Luke 22)”  Luke’s Jesus also gives no rebuke about ‘living by the sword’.

Further, Jesus makes and wields weapons himself to force social change.  When Jesus comes upon non-violent individuals who ‘desecrate’ a place he holds as holy he violently chases them out – a bad precedent to set in the Middle East.

And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple. (John 2:14-15)

And this is something Jesus physically did himself.  I don’t have space for all of the parables he’s told where the antagonist of the story gets brutally murdered or worse.

The Buddha in comparison abhorred all violence.  Ahimsa is the goal of extreme nonviolence that has no parallel in the Christian tradition.  Much more, in comparison to using whips and swords himself, the Buddha forbade as immoral even being involved in the production of weapons.  In the Dhammapada chapter 26, for example, the Buddha says “Him I call a brahmin who has put aside weapons and renounced violence toward all creatures. He neither kills nor helps others to kill.”

However, there is one story worth mentioning that proves the rule.  In one of the Buddha’s past lives he killed someone in order to save others.  But even killing for this reason, so the story goes, stalled his ability to achieve enlightenment in that life.

Extend Your Moral Circle to Animals

Jesus was great at extending our moral circle to other people.  The parable of the Good Samaritan will forever be a timeless classic.  Like I said, there is a lot we can learn from Jesus.  But unfortunately, the circle stops once it includes all homo sapiens.  Jesus just couldn’t care less about animals.  Sure, maybe it wasn’t in the divine plan to eat animals in the Garden of Eden, but Jesus nowhere criticizes killing animals, much less praises vegetarianism as something worthwhile to should aim for.   Saint Peter even later extends the number of animals Jews/Christians are allowed to kill and eat.

Worse than this, however, Jesus shows unnecessary cruelty to animals.  When casting out the demons from a possessed man in Mark 5, Jesus randomly decided to destroy 2000 pigs.

“A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.”

Putting aside the economic loss to whoever owned the pigs, the pigs lives themselves meant nothing.  The pleading of a literal demon outweighed their value as sentient creatures.

For the Buddha all life is precious.  Vegetarianism is a requirement for a monk.  There is no arbitrary line making humanity more special or deserving of compassion than animals.  If you feel pain and happiness then you matter, period.

Conclusion

I’m not trying to criticize Jesus.  I applaud much of the amazing social reform his teachings have inspired.  I’m just saying we need more than the Gospels can give us.  Christianity isn’t enough.  And I’m concerned about the millions of Americans, as well as others around the world, that focus on one single role model – whoever that role model is – that so clearly ignores or stands against many of the important things we need to change about modern society.

Paul Chiariello (Managing Editor, Rutgers & Yale University)

DSC_0484Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philo Curriculum for Camp Quest.  Paul has a MSc in Sociology of Edu from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on religious identity conflict. He also spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship.  He has worked with research organizations and schools DC, the UN, Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.

10 responses to “Why the Buddha is a Better Modern Role Model Than Jesus

  1. There is a much larger body of literature compared to the New Testament describing what the Buddha did and said, and many interpretations are possible. In the Pali canon, he was described as threatening to have the head of someone who was arguing with him over caste status ‘split into pieces’. Westerners exaggerate the degree of non-violence in Buddhism. In recent years Buddhist monks have led violence against minorities in Sri Lanka and Burma.

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    • Jesus also threatened “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble” in Luke 17:2.

      Since there is a ton of literature I’m unfamiliar with, is there a story where the Buddha himself is actually violent? Like chasing the merchants with a whip or needlessly killing thousands of pigs or requiring his disciples to carry weapons?

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    • I’ve studied Theravada Buddhism for about 18 years in both my native tongue and in Pali. Never have I ever come across any instance where Buddha endorsed violence or threatened someone with it. There are plenty of instances where Buddha and his disciples have undergone both physical and mental harm and have still practiced compassion on the ones that caused them harm. So no, Budhhism much like Jainism does not endorse any type of violence, even in the case of self defense.
      In the case of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Burma, you have to understand that the violence against Muslim minorities was a direct result of the nationalism. The monks stirred the public using nationalism, and convinced the public that Islam was threatning the existence of Buddhism and like in the past is trying to eradicate it from both Burma and Sri Lanka. If you look at the talks and preaching by those monks you will realize that there is no quotes from either Buddha or pali canon in them. Do

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  2. Paul, vegetarianism is not a requirement for a monk. Monks are to eat whatever the lay people offer them without discrimination. I should refer you to a story of Devadatta, archenemy of Siddhartha Gautama, who requested, among other things, that monks should be vegetarian as a law, but Buddha refused to do that.

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    • I’m well aware of the nuance. For instance, the Buddha said “Monks, I allow you fish and meat that are quite pure in three respects: if they are not seen, heard or suspected to have been killed on purpose for a monk. But, you should not knowingly make use of meat killed on purpose for you.”

      I take this as vegetarianism because it’s about having a choice. The situation that allowed monks to eat meat is outside what any of us would encounter in our lives, i.e. Monks begged and lived off of the offerings they received. For monks now that don’t live off of food given to them day to day, but have control over their menu, their only justifiable option is vegetarianism.

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    • A common, modern day equivalent may be showing up to a new friend’s house for dinner. They prepared steak which is all ready when you arrive.

      The Buddha might have recommended eating it instead of throwing it out and all the hassle of finding another option while everyone goes hungry.

      But if you’re a monk, or even lay Buddhist, and they ask you ahead of time “are you a vegetarian?” I’d expect you’d say yes instead of “i’m not a vegetarian, although I don’t eat meat when I have the choice about it.” I’d even suspect the Buddha would strongly suggest we call ahead and say we don’t eat meat, unless that’s the only option.

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    • The Buddha obviously spoke against violence, and his monks were totally prevented from commiting it. However, the same was not for the Buddha’s lay followers. In one of the Pali canon sources, we saw that the devout Buddhist king Prasenadi of Kosaa successfully defended his nation and his conquered territory against the counterattacks of king Ajatasatru of Magadha, And the Buddha clearly stated that Prasenadi was a kind friend of him and Ajatasatru was a bad person.

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  3. Interesting read… I noticed it’s based on Jesus alone and not the extension of Him. I mean this by his example being passed into others life’s… Like the apostles and saints who lived His way. “Pick up thy cross and follow me…” On intellectual humility Saint Thomas Aquinas writes on a great deal if intellectual hungry in “The Summa Theologica” check it out… And Saint Francis of Assisi extends knowledge and wisdom for friendship and live for animals… You can read about this in his books and sermons.Buddha has some great meditations and points! And Buddhists are called to love the life of Buddah. Jesus says the same, and in doing so His word continues to teach within the people who follow Him, like the Saints I mentioned above.

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  4. I don’t think vegetarian diet was promoted by Buddha. His last meal was Pork and Rice. So Buddha died as a non-vegetarian. In fact glorifying this veg diet itself dangerous. Since most of the Buddhist, Jains and some Hindus were vegetarian in medieval India it made Indian kings army very weak by 1000AD. Due to that Indians were enslaved for next 1000 years for not able to withstand foreign invasion.

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  5. The essential difference between Jesus and the Buddha is that Jesus claimed he was the Son of God. And he insisted on blind faith. “Blessed are they who have not seen but still believe.” The Buddha, on the other hand, did not claim any divinity. He was human with human frailties. and exhorted his disciples to find their own way. He merely laid down principles based on his knowledge and experience. The immense storehouse of deep psychology and philosophy in Buddhism is a closed book to the West.

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