For our next study, we will examine claims made (by a person who shall remain unnamed…though it is someone I have debated!) concerning the contents of an alleged ‘Mahâparinirvâna sutra” (M-sutra, for short). A number of very detailed correspondences are claimed between the life of Buddha in this document and the life of Christ.
Our foremost questions are:
- Can such an early date be validated for this material?
- Do the parallels exist?
Finding information on the date of this document isn’t easy. A frequently copied assessment online says:
The shortest and earliest extant translated version is the translation into Chinese by Faxian and Buddhabhadra in six juan (418CE); the next in terms of scriptural development is the Tibetan version (c790CE) by Jinamitra, Jñānagarbha and Devacandra; and the lengthiest version of all is what is known as the “Northern version” in 40 juan carried out by Dharmakṣema (422CE).
Unfortunately it is not possible to verify this information with the sources I have at hand. However, Richard Saloman, an expert in Buddhist manuscripts, wrote in an essay for the book Between the Empires that a set of fragments called the Schoyen collection included some fragments of the M-sutra, which come from all over its text. These fragments can be dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD.
But what of the date of actual composition? The M-sutra reportedly gives accounting of events and persons from the time of the Buddha (in the BC era) but I can find nothing actually arguing for an early composition date. It seems however that this is partly due to studies on the subject being in a nascent state. If copycat claimants are saying that this work can be dated earlier than Christ, they are certainly jumping the gun ahead of serious Buddhist scholarship.
What of the Parallels?
But here is where the rubber hits the road: The M-sutra is an enormous work. The English translation by Yamamoto takes up 584 pages, but is fortunately available online. Unfortunately, copycat claimants make no effort to indicate where in this enormous work the alleged correspondences appear. The equally unfortunate conclusion is that they do this because they do not WANT anyone checking back on their work.
For this reason, we place the burden on the copycat theorists to prove their points. Those we have been able to investigate below (from nine claims offered) have turned up either questionable or false.
- The death episode begins for Buddha crossing the Ganges at Magadha, from whence he goes on to Kusinagari for a last meal.
The fable of Matthew (15:39) similarly has JC aboard ship, to
the (unknown) "coasts of Magdala", from whence he goes on to Jerusalem
for a last meal.
The “coasts of Magdala” are not “unknown”. Magdala has been identified with a place called Migdal, and the archaic “coasts” of the KJV are rendered in terms of a district or locale. It was on the Sea of Galilee, so an arrival by boat is hardly unlikely.
It is also dishonest to refer to this episode in terms of, “from whence he goes on to Jerusalem for a last meal.” That meal does not occur until Matthew 26, and in between, Jesus has a number of other stops: Caesarea Phillipi, Galilee, Judea by the Jordan, and then Jerusalem. The parallel is attempted by compressing (ignoring) 9 chapters.
In terms of the M-sutra, a place called “Magadha” is referenced several times, but it would surely be absurd to posit a connection between the name of a locale in Aramaic and another in Chinese or Sanskit, based on English characters. Kusinagara is also referenced (note the slight spelling difference) But we must say more of this “last meal” after looking at a couple of more entries for context.
- Both Buddha and JC forecast their own death 3 times.
See more on this below; contextually the answer is best combined with an answer on the next one.
- Buddha arrives at Ku-kut-tha, JC at 'Gol ga tha'.
Yamamoto’s translation does not reference a “Ku-kut-tha” – with or without the hyphens. I searched the translation for the “kut” letter combination and the closest word to this is “Kukuta”, which is said to be a word for the “voice of domestic fowl”. The “kut” combination is also found in a few proper names of persons, but not in any place name.
Further research shows that “Kukutha” is a river (whereas Golgotha is a garden), and it is said that Buddha drank and bathed there, and indeed ate mangoes before dying – very quietly and not by crucifixion, and after doing a lot of other things like passing through various states of “ecstasy”.
It is hard to see where this is referenced, however, in the M-sutra. I checked a Buddhist information site with a biography of Buddha (found here) and found out some more information. Buddha’s official last meal was not this referenced episode. It was prior to this, when his host Cunda created a special dish, which ended up giving Buddha some sort of indigestion.
Now we have the context to report on the predictions of his death. I did find evidence of at least two such predictions in the Buddhanet source (but not in the M-sutra, though they may be in there), and there may well be three. However, there is apparently some attempt to confuse the reader here: Jesus predicted his death more than three times; if we count parallel accounts once each, there are no less than twelve passion predictions by Jesus. Clearly someone is confusing these with something else, like perhaps Peter’s denials of Jesus.
- Both Buddha and JC twice refuse a drink.
This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t matter. Buddha lived the life of a humble ascetic; refusing a drink would not be a matter of not wanting to down a painkiller (as with Jesus) but a matter of expressing ascetic values. Buddha’s death did not involve refusal of a narcotic drink.
- Buddha dies between 2 trees, JC between 2 criminals.
Buddha’s death occurred in a grove, so it would seem that he could hardly avoid dying between any two particular trees we might choose. I can find no explicit reference to dying between two trees, in either work. I do find it referred to in a descriptive work here by a more modern writer, as well as in other modern commentaries, so there may well be some authenticity to this. Not that it matters: Trees are not criminals, and the Romans did crucify people in groups.
- Both promise their last convert that "today you will be in paradise."
Yamamoto’s translation contains no such phrase. The Buddhanet sources says that his last words were to a disciple: “Behold, O disciples, I exhort you. Subject to change are all component things. Strive on with diligence.”There is no mention of “paradise” as part of any last statement to any person; the last convert is said to be a person named Subhadda and I find no such statement or any similar one reported as made.
Interestingly a critique of the Bible by a Buddhist found here references Jesus’ prediction, but does not seem to be aware of any parallel statement by Buddha.
- Death occurs during 'darkness'.
No such thing is referred to in the Buddhanet account and the word “darkness” is not used in that way in Yamamoto’s translation.
- A disciple of Buddha – Kas ya pas – travelling with 500
monks – encounters an unknown personage from whom he learns of the death
of Buddha. Another unnamed disciple disparages the dead Buddha.
The fable of Luke has the disciple Kle o pas encounter an unknown
personage on the road to Emmaus. This 'unrecognised' Jesus disparages
the evident lack of faith.
In a variation of the story, the 500 Buddhist monks become Paul's 500 brethren (1 Cor. 15.6) – though Paul renders Kas ya pas as 'Cephas' ).
Of course, we might ask the usual question about trying to connect Aramaic and Chinese/Sanskit names via English characters. But what else? Well, at the beginning of the M-sutra story Buddha has “as many as 80 billion hundred thousand” monks hanging around, so apparently, this “500” wasn’t anything special. Shortly after there’s a place where only 8 million are hanging around, and of them it is said:
All were arhats [saints]. They were unmolested [unlimited] in mind and could act as they willed. They were segregated from all illusions, and all their sense-organs were subdued. Like great naga [serpent] kings, they were perfect in great virtue. They were accomplished in the wisdom of the All-Void and perfect in the attainments of their own [in inner attainments]. They were like the sandalwood forest with sandalwood all around, or like a lion king surrounded by lions. They were perfect in all such virtues. They were the true sons of the Buddha. Early in the morning, when the sun had just risen, they were up from their beds in the places where they lived and were about to use their toothbrushes, when they encountered the light that arose from the Buddha’s person. And they said to one another: "Hurry up with bathing and gargling, and be clean." So did they say, and their hair stood on end all over their body, and their blood so ran that they looked like palasa flowers. Tears filled their eyes, which expressed great pain.
In the NT they also were not associated with Cleophas, and were not “monks”. Why not connect the NT instead to the 500 robbers in the M-sutra, or the 500 wrestlers, or one of the other groups of 500 in this monster of a story? (As an aside, any attempt to connet "Cleophas" to "Kasyapas" fails inasmuch as "Cleopas" is a well known name of the first century: The name is also found in Plutarch, as well as a Jewish legal paper of roughly the same period, and the feminine version is well-known to us via Cleopatra.)
- The dead Buddha is burned and it is the smoke of his corpse which rises– the true "resurrection."
Little needs to be said of this one, which is simply a case of defining “resurrection” in a loose and arbitrary way that has nothing to do with the Jewish notion of the original body being restored in a glorified manner.