Jesus and Engaged Buddhism

Scholars have long taken notice of the many similarities between Christian moral teachings and Buddhist traditions. Here is a piquant example.

I am not a Buddhist. (Nor do I play one on TV!) If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I care a great deal about my Christian faith and the kind of lives we lead as followers of Jesus.

However, I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that only ideas which originate within “Christendom” are inherently good, and ideas which come from other cultures or spiritual traditions are inherently bad. I believe every idea deserves a fair hearing and an open-minded evaluation.

Which is why I found myself nodding my head vigorously and shouting right on! as I read through The Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a world-renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk and founder of the Order of Interbeing. He has had an influential role in the lives of many since the 1960’s, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. He studied comparative religion at Columbia University and Princeton University and has been an advocate for peace across the world in the decades since.

There is much to admire in Hạnh’s fourteen precepts (the guiding principles he taught to students in the Order of Interbeing), both from a Christian standpoint studying Jesus’ life and ministry, and from a secular standpoint looking for an antidote to the poisonous “culture wars” and political machinations besetting America today. While I don’t agree with every single point made, this document is nevertheless worth considering. Here are a few that stood out to me, along with some evaluation on how Jesus felt about similar matters.

“Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.” 1st Precept

You don’t often hear religious leaders admit they don’t have all the answers or an iron-clad grip on “The Truth.” Theological arrogance unfortunately is a common malady within religious circles, and Christianity is no exception. But this is nothing new. Jesus ran up against the very same problem is his day as well. ‘“Yes,” said Jesus, “what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.’ (Luke 11:46) “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39)

As Christians, our source of truth is none other than Jesus himself, and while the contents of Scripture are important and honorable, we must be careful that we don’t elevate the Bible to the place of idolatry. We can have valid debates on the meaning or relevance of particular passages of Scripture and still be unified by our love of God and concern for humanity. Don’t be like the Pharisees! “For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)

“Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness.” 3rd Precept

Freedom is under constant assault around the world and even here in America. I am disturbed that people from all viewpoints and parties, from overzealous lawmakers to social media activists, feel it necessary to impose their values and priorities on everyone else. The level of absurdity we find in the Republicans vs. Democrats contest right now is but one example.

Jesus demonstrated a different path, one of servitude, generosity, compassion, and conveyance of deeper meanings through the art of storytelling. As it says in the book of Matthew:

‘Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.”’ (Matthew 13:34-35)

“Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)

“Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life Fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.” 5th Precept

This basically sums up the entire earthly ministry of Jesus. Need I say more?

“Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.” 8th Precept

In Jesus’ words: “But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court…if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.” ‭‭(Matthew‬ ‭5:22-24‬)

“Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party.” 10th Precept (excerpt)

At the risk of sounding alarmist, I fear American Christianity has nearly been destroyed by politics, corruption, and the quest for worldly power. I can only imagine what Jesus would say to the Churches if he were here in the flesh. No doubt much the same as what he said before:

‘Then Jesus said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.”’ (Luke‬ ‭12:15‬)‭

‘Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”’ (John‬ ‭18:36)‬

“Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.” 12th Precept

I am unabashedly pro-life. By that I mean promoting life from first conception all the way to death by natural causes. I am against the death penalty and, for the most part, am anti-war.

I didn’t always feel this way. Ashamedly, I supported the war in Iraq after 9/11, and I once advocated for the death penalty. But as events unfolded in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s toppling, and as I studied our criminal justice system more closely, I came to realize I could not in all good conscience hold such positions and still claim to be pro-life. In a sense, I had to ask the question: what would Jesus do?

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person!” (Matthew 5:38)

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43)

‘“…to answer your question—if you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” the man asked. And Jesus replied: “You must not murder…”’ (Matthew‬ ‭19:17-18)‬

“God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.” ‭‭(Matthew‬ ‭5:7-9‬)


As a parting thought, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the last of the fourteen precepts. Being an enthusiastic proponent of the Apostle Paul’s teaching about our bodies being Temples of the Holy Spirit and worthy of honor, I really appreciated this statement:

“Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument.” 14th Precept (excerpt)


What are your thoughts on the similarities or differences bewteen Jesus’ teachings and Thích Nhất Hạnh’s precepts? I’d love to hear from you!

Jared White