GOSPEL OF THOMAS: THE BUDDHIST JESUS?

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Jesus: Teacher of Enlightenment

Lost for 1,600 years

 

In 1945, in an Egyptian cave near desert town of Nag Hammadi, 52 papyrus texts were discovered, some dating from the beginning of the Christian era, revealing a Jesus who teaching akin to a Shin myokonin, a Zen Master, or even Shakyamuni Buddha himself. Lost for 1,600 years, these are known as the Gnostic Gospels, from the Greek word "gnosis"...meaning "to know"...’to know oneself,” that is to have an insight into and awakened to oneself in an intuitive and non-dualistic sense.

Buddhist Influences

 

According to the New Testament (The Gospel of Matthew), Jesus spent his early childhood in Egypt which was at the end of the Silk Road. As a result, Egypt was prosperous and enriched with religious diversity. There was even a large Buddhist community known as the Therapeutae (Sons of the Elders) that existed in Alexandria. Today, some scholars believe that Jesus may have been inspired by the Buddhist religion and that the Gospel of Thomas and many Nag Hammadi texts reflect this possible influence. Books such as The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels and The Original Jesus by Gruber and Kersten examine the facts and fiction, and theories. 

 

This is not to say that Jesus was a Buddhist disciple but just possibly he had been influenced by the Buddhist teachings. This is mere speculation. Obviously, he was a Jew and was influenced by the Hebrew religious tradition. However, for us, Jesus is our spiritual brother and our teacher as a mystic. We are one with all mystics whether they be called Shinran, Dogen, Rumi, Khan, Gandhi, Jesus, Nanak and Ramana, etc.  Each mystical tradition speaks of the same experience but with different words; one may use the word "Pure Land" and the other as the "Kingdom of Heaven" but the experience is the same.


A Different Christian Tradition

 

Some scholars have observed that among these Nag Hammadi texts, The Gospel of Thomas includes teachings older than Gospels of the New Testament, such as Mark, Matthew, Luke or John, and also closer to the actual life of the historical Jesus. These scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas was written around 62 C.E. because it commends James, the brother of Jesus, to be the legitimate heir to the early Christian movement and in addition makes no reference to the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 72 C.E. Moreover, of all of the Nag Hammadi texts, it is Thomas that has the most similarities with Pure Land Buddhism within it.
 

Enlightenment for All

 

Exploring the Gospel of Thomas, we discover that Jesus believed the self and the divine to be identical and one. Furthermore, the Kingdom of Heaven is not in the future but is “right here.” and one only needs to be awakened to this perfection.  Jesus, in this gospel, speaks of enlightenment, the same type that is taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, Shin teachers and Zen Masters. In addition, Thomas does not have a narrative story line but just 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, many of which are akin to Zen koans. Here, Jesus is never presented as Lord or Savior, but rather as a spiritual guide who is equal to his students. In addition, the Gospel of Thomas does not contain a supernatural virgin birth or the doctrine of the Virgin Mary.  It does not teach of original sin.  It does not mention Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection.  It does not  teach Jesus’ death as a payment of debt to “atone” for humanity's sins.  It does not include any supernatural healings or miracles. It does not mention the so-called end-times or the wrath of God.  It does not mention salvation through faith in Christ. It does not exclude women.

 

The Exclusion of Thomas

Why was the Gospel of Thomas disqualified from the Christian Bible and eventually outlawed? During the reign of Emperor Constantine around the 4th century C.E., the Roman Empire was looking to reconstitute and solidify its power. The Emperor and the existing power structure chose the Pauline sect of Christianity as the “official” religion, which include the epistles of Paul and the Gospels and books from his disciples that form the present-day New Testament. Teachings from the Gospel of Thomas and other Nag Hammadi texts were seen as a danger to the developing ecclesiastical and political structure because they rejected the authority of the bishops, priests and deacons. Roman Church father Ignatius warned the Christians to "honor and obey the bishop as you would God."  It is quite easy to see why the church councils did not choose the Gospel of Thomas and other similar texts for their Bible. As a result, for political reasons these texts were banned and later destroyed for the good of Empire and Church. After all, bishops and priests would lose their power and influence with the common people, if the common people learned that Jesus taught they did not need such religious authority/intermediaries of the Church, bishops and priests, and that the Kingdom is within all and is directly accessible to everyone without them; we all are sons/daughters of God.

 

Why Study the Gospel of Thomas?

 

You might be wondering why Shin Buddhists should even bother to study the early teachings of Jesus? Our interest in learning about the early teachings of Jesus is not to discredit Christianity but because this Gospel shares similar mystical content with the Shin and Zen Buddhist traditions, we 21st century Buddhists can learn a lot from this ancient mystic, called Jesus of Nazareth. So, by studying the teachings of the Gospel of Thomas through the lenses of  Buddhist thought and religious experience, we can further deepen our spiritual path and awaken to our True Nature, our universal Buddha-nature, which ultimately has no name but is experienced as faith, compassion and wisdom.

 

In addition, as Western Buddhists, we must deal with Christianity as a political, social and religious power. How shall we perceive the teachings of Jesus? Must we cave into the dogma of the traditional and evangelical Christian parlance? Or can we reinterpret the teachings (dharma) of Jesus? Must Jesus be an advesary or can he be a teacher for us? Just with a shift in interpretation, Jesus becomes not a judgemental and cosmic Christ but a Bodhisattva guiding beings like ourselves to the Kingdom that is there before us and within us.

 

Perhaps in the future, due to its Buddhist inclinations, the Gospel of Thomas will be considered a genuine Buddhist sutra (scripture) thereby bridging the gap between Eastern and Western spirituality while helping seekers to awaken to the endowed Pure Land (Kingdom of God) within themselves.  Maybe, even Jesus himself will someday be considered the Bodhisattva of the West.

 

Parallel Sayings and Teachings

 

The following web pages offer an open-minded presentation of some of the parallel mystical sayings and teachings from the Gospel of Thomas that may be related to but are certainly illuminated by the Buddhist teachings. This is a work in progress and in the near future more correlations will be added, including the parallel sayings from the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary, the Q Gospel and other Nag Hammadi texts. Regarding the Gospel of Thomas with Shin and Zen Buddhist teachings, some of the similiarities are disturbing. But did not Jesus say, "the seeker should not stop until he finds. When he does find, he will be disturbed. After being disturbed, he will be astonished"  (Thomas 2). Please read on and judge for yourself.

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About This Website

This website with its unique research was written and organized by Senpai Sensei on February 24th, 2005.

Senpai Sensei has written extensively on Shin Buddhism and is the founder and president of the Buddhist Faith Fellowship of Connecticut and the North america Shin Buddhist Association.

The author grants permission to copy this document for personal uses only.