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Following the initial contacts between Christian missionaries and Buddhism in the 13th century, discussions regarding the similarities and differences of, and a possible relationship between Buddhism and Christianity began and the 20th century witnessed a better understanding of the issues and the concepts.
Although surface level non-scholarly analogies have been drawn between the two traditions, Buddhism and Christianity have inherent and fundamental differences at the deepest levels, beginning with monotheism's place at the core of Christianity and Buddhism's orientation towards non-theism (the lack of relevancy of the existence of a creator deity) which runs counter to teachings about God in Christianity; and extending to the importance of Grace in Christianity against the rejection of interference with Karma in Theravada Buddhism, etc. Another irreconcilable difference between the two traditions is the Christian belief in the centrality of the crucifixion of Jesus as a single event that acts as the atonement of sins, and its direct contrast to Buddhist teachings.
Though a fair amount of 20th century scholars have come to different conclusions regarding an early contact between the faiths, the majority of modern Christian scholarship has roundly rejected any historical basis for the travels of Jesus to India or Tibet or influences between the teachings of Christianity and Buddhism, and has seen the attempts at parallel symbolism as cases of parallelomania which exaggerate the importance of trifling resemblances.
The origins of Christianity go back to Roman Judea in early first century. The four Christian gospels date from around 70-90 AD, the Pauline Epistles having been written before them around 50-60 AD. By early second century, post apostolic Christian theology had taken shape, in the works of authors such as Irenaeus Although Christianity is seen as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy regarding the "Messiah" which dates back much further.
In the 1930s, authors such as Will Durant, suggested that representatives of Emperor Ashoka who traveled to Syria, Egypt and Greece, may have helped prepare the ground for Christian teaching. Modern Christian scholars generally hold that there is no evidence of any such influence, and most modern scholarly theological works do not support these suggestions. Some historians such as Jerry H. Bentley however suggest that there is a possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity".
In the Middle Ages there was no trace of Buddhism in the west. In the 13th century, international travelers, such as Giovanni de Piano Carpini and William of Ruysbroeck, sent back reports of Buddhism to the west and noted some similarities with Nestorian Christian communities. When European Christians made more direct contact with Buddhism in the early 16th century, Catholic missionaries such as St. Francis Xavier also sent back accounts of Buddhist practices.
With the arrival of Sanskrit studies in European universities in the late 18th century, and the subsequent availability of Buddhist texts, a discussion began of a proper encounter with Buddhism. In time, Buddhism gathered followers and at the end of the 19th century the first Westerners (e.g. Sir Edwin Arnold and Henry Olcott) converted to Buddhism, and in the beginning of the 20th century the first westerners (e.g. Ananda Metteyya and Nyanatiloka) entered the Buddhist monastic life.
In the 19th century, some scholars began to perceive similarities between Buddhist and Christian practices, e.g. in 1878 T.W. Rhys Davids wrote that the earliest missionaries to Tibet observed that similarities have been seen since the first known contact. In 1880 Ernest De Bunsen made similar observations in that with the exception of the death of Jesus on the cross, and of the Christian doctrine of atonement, the most ancient Buddhist records had similarities with the Christian traditions.
Late in the 20th century, historian Jerry H. Bentley also wrote of similarities and stated that it is possible "that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity" and suggested "attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus". Some high level Buddhists have drawn analogies between Jesus and Buddhism, e.g. in 2001 the Dalai Lama stated that "Jesus Christ also lived previous lives," and added that "So, you see, he reached a high state, either as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened person, through Buddhist practice or something like that". Thich Nhat Hanh affirmed core Christian beliefs such as the trinity, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in his book "Living Buddha, Living Christ." More recently, an linking of the fundamental and essential teachings of the two religions was made in the book Jesus for a Buddhist.
There are inherent and fundamental differences between Buddhism and Christianity, one significant element being that while Christianity is at its core monotheistic and relies on a God as a Creator, Buddhism is generally non-theistic and rejects the notion of a Creator God which provides divine values for the world.
The Nicene Creed, the most widely used Christian creed, states that "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible". However, the notion of theistic creation is generally foreign to Buddhist thought, and the question of the existence of God is perhaps one of the most fundamental barriers between the teachings of Christianity and Buddhism. Although Mahayana Buddhism expresses belief in Bodhisattva this is very different from the notion of Creator God in Christianity. While some variations of Buddhism believe in an impersonal eternal Buddha or creative force, in general Buddhism sees the universe as eternal and without a starting point of creation.
There are inherent differences in the Christian and Buddhist beliefs regarding the End Times and eschatology. Jan Nattier states that while Buddhism has a notion of "relative eschatology" that refers to specific cycles of life, the term "Buddhist eschatology" does not relate to any "final things", or that the world will end one day - Buddhist scripture routinely referring to the "beginningless Saṃsāra" as a never ending cycle of birth and death with no starting point. However, Christian eschatology directly involves the concept of "end to all creation" at the Last Judgement when the world will reach its conclusion. Scholars generally regard the Buddhist and Christian views of the End Times as incompatible.
There are other fundamental incompatibilities, e.g. while Grace in Christianity is part of the very fabric of theology, in Theravada Buddhism no deity can interfere with Karma and hence the notion of any type of grace is inadmissible within these teachings. Mahayana Buddhism however, differs on this issue.
The crucifixion of Jesus as a single event in history that acts for the atonement of sins is a central element of Christian belief. This, however, produces a strong difference between Christian and Buddhist teachings. Buddhist scholar Masao Abe pointed out that while "the event of the Cross" is central to Christianity, it is not possible for Buddhism to accept its importance. Buddhist philosopher D. T. Suzuki stated that every time he saw a crucifixion scene it reminded him of the "gap that lies deep" between Christianity and Buddhism.
Suggestions have been made that Buddhism may have influenced early Christianity. Buddhist missionaries, sent by Emperor Ashoka to India, Ceylon, Syria, Egypt and Greece, may have helped prepare for the ethics of Christ. Gnostics (a small number of sects) are not considered part of mainstream Christianity and some have been declared heretical. However, Elaine Pagels proposes Buddhist influences on Gnosticism. Pagels suggested that there are parallels with teachings attributed to Jesus Christ and teachings found in Eastern traditions, but concludes that these parallels might be coincidental, since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures without direct influence. However, no evidence of a connection to Buddhism in Gnosticism has been shown to exist in mainstream scholarship. Buddhist Jack McQuire has suggested that in the 4th century, Christian monasticism developed in Egypt, and it emerged with a corresponding structure comparable to the Buddhist monasticism of its time and place.
The suggestion that an adult Jesus traveled to India and was influenced by Buddhism before starting his ministry in Galilee was first made by Nicolas Notovitch in 1894 in the book The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ which was widely disseminated and became the basis of other theories. Notovitch's theory was controversial from the beginning and was widely criticized. Once his story had been re-examined by historians, Notovitch confessed to having fabricated the evidence.
A number of scholars have stated that suggestions of an influence from Buddhism on Christianity, particularly Jesus's alleged travels to Buddhist India, are fanciful and without any historical basis:
Buddhism has been gaining popularity in the west. Starting with a cultural and academic elite in the 19th century, it is now widespread in western culture, especially since the 1960s.
In the 20th century Christian monastics such as Thomas Merton, Wayne Teasdale, David Steindl-Rast and the former nun Karen Armstrong, and Buddhist monastics such as Ajahn Buddhadasa, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have taken part in an interfaith dialogue about Buddhism and Christianity. This dialogue aims to shed light on the common ground between Buddhism and Christianity.
Although the prevalent romantic view on Buddhism sees it as an authentic and ancient practice, contemporary Buddhism is deeply influenced by the western culture. With the rise of western colonialism in the 19th century, Asian cultures and religions developed strategies to adapt to the western hegemony, without losing their own traditions. Western discourses were taken over, and western polemic styles were applied to defend indigenous traditions.
In 1989 the Catholic Church, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rejected attempts at mixing some aspects of Christian and Buddhist practices, in a letter titled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian meditation" generally known as the Aspects of Christian meditation letter.
The document issues warnings on differences, and potential incompatibilities, between Christian meditation and the styles of meditation used in eastern religions such as Buddhism. Referring to some elements of Buddhism as "negative theology" the document states: