The neat separation many of us make in our minds between Eastern and Western religion and culture belies many common historical origins and interconnections. We forget the common origin of most of the languages of Europe and India, along with Persian, Armenian and Hittite. We forget how Alexander, a Greek/Macedonian extended an empire all the way to India, stranding many outposts of Greek culture in palaces like Ghandara, in present day Afghanistan and Pakastan, later to become a major center of Buddhism. We forget that King Ashoka of 3rd Century B.C. India dispatched missionaries to spread Buddhism far and wide, including to Greece, Egypt, Syria and Italy, and how the Silk Road, the trade route through which Buddhism extended itself historically extended not only to China in the east, but to the Mediterranean and Rome in the West. Centuries later the extensive Arab empire would serve as a conduit between East and West.
So it should not be surprising that parallels between Christianity and Buddhism have been recognized for some time. Some of these are physical artifacts, such as the similarity of the Christian gesture of prayer, which apparently has no Jewish counterpart, and the Indian anjali, carried wherever Buddhism has spread, or the Catholic rosary and the Indian mala. Scholars have pointed out similarities between many biblical and Buddhist texts. Most striking for me has always been the Buddhist flavor of the words of Jesus, particularly evident in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. And then there is the existence of similar monastic traditions in Buddhism and Christianity.
I will let Ajahn Brahm fill in the next couple of paragraphs about recent discoveries of Buddhist communities around Alexandria Egypt dating since before the time of Christ, including the possible Buddhist identity of a monastic community called the Therapeutae and the possible affiliation of Jesus with that community or with some offshoot or sister community.
Is Christianity with its Jewish influences—much as Zen with its Taoist influences—in the end a branch of Buddhism? Was Jesus the original Jew-Bu, a precursor to the many modern Jewish practitioners of Buddhism?
When I was at St. Joseph Abbey last month, visiting with Father William and Brother Aaron, I was glad to see that they were not only aware of the evidence for the Buddhist origins of their own monastic lives but found it to be quite compelling. A further common development in the monastic tradition both East and West concerns higher education and research. Universities developed in India from Buddhist monasteries in the First Millennium A.D.— Nalanda is the best know example—, and in Europe from Christian monasteries several hundred years later. In my recent essay “Science and Vinaya” I point to parallels between the traditional Buddhist monastic community and the modern scientific community. Although I attribute the commonalities there to similarity in function, it may be that the roots of modern scientific discipline trace all the way back to the Buddhist Vinaya historically.
This is all cool stuff, but still speculative