Crossing the water: Comparing Buddhist and Christian imagery

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by Neil Godfrey

Source: Alamy. In this version Buddha calls on a cloud to transport him across the Ganges.

René Salm is way ahead of me in posting on Hermann Detering’s newest release on Christian origins arguing for links between early gnosticism in Egypt and Buddhism from India. He now has four comments online.  I have since tried to elicit the main arguments from the second section of Detering’s article via a most welcome but unfortunately less than 100% clear translation of the German original. Last post I outlined Detering’s survey of early allegorical and other gnostic interpretations of the Exodus and how some of these conflated or replaced Moses with Joshua as the central figure. In the next section, part 2, Detering addresses comparable analogies in Buddhism and the Upanishads.

The Eastern allegories place greater stress on the water representing ignorance and fear.

In one Buddhist story the Buddha asks his followers if it makes sense to carry around with them the rafts they had made in order to cross a river to reach him. No, of course, is the answer, since the purpose of the rafts has been met and they are no longer needed. Detering does not make the comparison but I was reminded of Paul’s teaching in Galatians that the law was only a temporary requirement to bring people to Christ and is no longer necessary for those who have become Christians. (I am not saying that Paul derived his teaching from Buddhism but only pointing to the similar concepts.)

In another Buddhist parable the water barrier symbolizes the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It represents the world with its passions and desires. The rafts represent Buddha’s teachings.

So the metaphor in Buddhism is that the water represents “stream of existence”, monks are the ford-crossers, and those seeking to cross the river to Nirvana are tasked with cleansing themselves from desires and passions.

Walking on water

As for the image of walking on water I have seen in Buddhist temples murals of Buddha standing or walking on a river with his disciples following after him in boats. But I do not suspect that these images were painted before Christianity was known in these parts of Asia. Detering discusses the scholarly research into the origins of such an image in the Eastern tradition and that concludes the motif cannot be later than around 200 BC to 50 AD. If so, the image is certainly independent of the gospels. (The stories of Buddha’s crossing vary in how they describe the act: did he actually walk? or was he transported just above the surface of the water? in some he was not seen walking at all but simply mysteriously appeared on the other side leaving his disciples mystified as to how he crossed.)

Detering points to “close parallels” between the 39th Ode of Solomon and a verse in Buddhist literature depicting disciples of a master teacher struggling to find a way across an expanse of water, but some being swept away in a raging torrent or storm. I am too uncertain of the details to offer a translation or precise citation here so we’ll have to await the translation of Detering’s argument.

In the next section Detering discusses closer apparent links between the Therapeutae near Alexandria in Egypt and Buddhism.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Crossing the water: Comparing Buddhist and Christian imagery”

  1. According to early Buddhist traditions, walking a water is a skill that a contemplative can develop w/ extensive meditation experience. One doesn’t have to be the Buddha to do this.

    From the Samaññaphala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 2: “When their mind has become immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, spotless, rid of taints, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable—they extend it and project it toward psychic power. They wield the many kinds of psychic power: multiplying themselves and becoming one again; going unimpeded through a wall, a rampart, or a mountain as if through space; diving in and out of the earth as if it were water; walking on water as if it were earth; flying cross-legged through the sky like a bird; touching and stroking with the hand the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful; controlling the body as far as the Brahmā realm. ” [https://suttacentral.net/dn2/en/sujato]

    This Sutta is from the Pali Nikayas are there are extensive Sanskrit and Chinese Agama parallels for it, so it almost certainly predates Christianity.

  2. Pingback: Remembering |
  3. Is there some evidence of the existence of presumed “rituals” of mystery religions that spoke of the “dense sea” into which the souls awaiting ascension entered? Alvin Boyd Kuhn postulated that “Pontius” comes from Pontus, the Greek word for sea, and piletos is a Latin borrowing from the Greek participle for “densified, hence the going through the sea of suffering and death would have been misunderstood enough easily as “he suffered under Pontius Pilate”. Yet I have never found until now evidence of such hymns or rituals, mentioned only vaguely by Kuhn when at least a quote could make his case even more strong.

    1. It’s an interesting possibility but possibilities are not probabilities.

      I am reminded of the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. At the time the stories flew around that the title was code for LSD, and that LSD inspired the song. The attempts at the time by the Beatles themselves and John’s wife Cynthia to deny the rumour mostly fell on deaf ears. But long after the song was released and when there was no known reason for any of the Beatles, least of all John, or Cynthia to try to deny the LSD code in the title, it was insisted by those in the know that it really was based on a school-time drawing by the young Julian Lennon. The LSD rumour had on its side the known drug taking by John Lennon and the plausibility of the rumour. But as John himself said later, the LSD idea was too clever and the truth was much more prosaic.

      There was no independent evidence to tie the LSD reference to the first letters of the song title but only loads of plausibility and possibility. The independent testimonies confirmed the more simplistic and comparatively “boring” explanation.

      I once also sought long and hard for a hidden meaning in the name of Pontius Pilate, but finally had to conclude that I was better off sticking with the simpler, if less mysterious, fundamentals of historical methods and literary interpretations.

      (p.s. like the “Paul is dead” rumour — one could find dozens upon dozens of clues to prove that the Beatles were trying to send the message that Paul was dead, even if they were only hoaxing… but those clues were all in the imaginative interpretations of the audiences.)

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