Jesus, Buddha, and the Search for Meaning


Virtuous action is the only way to calm the mind.

Jonathan Gold ​Professor of religion at Princeton University

Jesus, Buddha, and the Search for Meaning


Jesus and Buddha, separated by 3,000 miles and 400 hundred years, both speak to central questions of meaning. How similar — and how different — are their perspectives and how do the teachings, rituals, and histories of each tradition complement or contradict each other? Take the one-hour version of this popular Princeton course and explore how Jesus and Buddha understood the meaning of life and death, suffering, and salvation.

How a midlife crisis led the Buddha to teach
How a midlife crisis led the Buddha to teach
Jesus and judgment day
Two teachers, 3000 miles and four centuries apart

How a midlife crisis led the Buddha to teach

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Both Buddha and Jesus experienced a pivotal moment in their lives — an awakening event — after which everything changed. After this awakening event, says Princeton religion professor Jonathan Gold, they both became moral exemplars and teachers. The Buddha’s journey as a religious figure began in midlife, when he realized his own mortality. “The Buddha felt that something had to be done about the problem of suffering and the problem of death,” Gold explains. To find answers, the Buddha turned to meditation and yoga. One night during an intensely focused meditation, says Gold, the Buddha defeated the demon of desire, Mara, and attained nirvana, an awakening and complete liberation from all suffering and delusion — a kind of perfect wisdom.

Out of compassion, the Buddha turned to teaching in the hope that he could share the path to liberation with others. Followers of  the Buddha, says Gold, act virtuously and morally and follow five precepts:

The Five Precepts of Buddhism

Not to kill; Not to steal; Not to engage in sexual misconduct; Not to lie; Not to take intoxicants

These layers of morality are expressions of karma, Gold explains.

In Buddhism, karma is the idea that our actions have an effect on us and govern how we are reborn in our next life.

“How you act in the world is a direct reflection of your state of mind,” he says, and the Buddha teaches that virtuous action is the only way to calm the mind. By the same token, a calm mind sees how to act virtuously. “All you have to do is calm down and look, and you can see what’s right and wrong,” says Gold.


Jesus and judgment day

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The Buddha’s teachings focus mainly on interior transformation — how to accept suffering and transcend it. Jesus’s story, on the other hand, focuses on how God’s spirit impels him to action, challenging evil powers and social and political suffering, says Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton. Watch Pagels detail the events that guided Jesus on his spiritual path:

  • Elaine Pagels

Jesus’s teachings are contextualized by the belief that a day of judgement is coming, says Pagels. How will God judge the world? The principle of divine judgement is utterly straightforward, she explains — what you give is what you get. If you give to others generosity, understanding, and forgiveness, God will be generous, understanding, and forgiving to you. “It’s a precisely reciprocal response to your actions,” she says.


Two teachers, 3000 miles and four centuries apart

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Jonathan Gold says a key benefit of studying religion is “that by juxtaposing differences and similarities, we can highlight the unique particularities of each tradition even as we deepen our understanding of what they share.” The teachings of Jesus and Buddha occur in different cultural contexts but the Bible and Buddhist scriptures share many principles. One obvious example, says Elaine Pagels, is that the five precepts can be seen in the ten commandments (with the exception of “take no intoxicants.” Wine was seen in Jewish tradition not as an intoxicant, but part of celebrating joyful events).

If these [religious] traditions weren’t reappropriated, recreated, reinvented, and transformed to deal with the needs and issues of very different generations and people all over the world in different situations, they wouldn’t survive.
Elaine Pagels

Both Buddha and Jesus asked their followers to do more than just refrain from negative behavior. “The Buddhist tradition says that most of our motivations need to be reexamined,” Gold explains. It’s not enough to be superficially moral and doing good for the sake of appearances —  you should be actively thinking about others more than yourself, and, adds Pagels, following the age-old golden rule: do unto others what you would have them do to you.

Learn More

Additional Information


Through Personal Testament, ‘Why Religion?’ Explores Belief in the 21st Century

Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?

Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu's Unifying Buddhist Philosophy

Jonathan Gold and Robert Wright: Paving the Great Way

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