The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Christianity and Buddhism
by Ernest Valea
Most Westerners are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son as it appears in Luke's Gospel, but probably few are aware that it has a Buddhist parallel in one of the major writings of Mahayana Buddhism. Although both parables seem to convey a similar message regarding God's compassion for humans, a closer look will reveal fundamental differences in their teaching and consequently between Christianity and Buddhism. Let me quote both parables and then analyze them.
Agape And Compassion
Augustine Ichiro Okumura,O.C.D.
It is often said that Christianity is a "religion of love" while Buddhism is a "religion of wisdom" In Buddhism, there is the teaching of Amitabha's mercy, (Maitri) which liberates mankind completely so that in end even hell will be abolished. In Christianity, we find the great wisdom literature in the Old Testament; and in the New Testament, the thought that "to know", Christ is great wisdom. St. Paul furthermore declares the supreme advantage of knowing Christ in whom all knowledge and wisdom are concealed (Phil 3:8, Eph 1:17, Col 1:9; etc).
Contrasting the Parables of the Prodigal Son in Buddhism and Christianity
By: Jerry Benjamin Stout
The meaning of the parable of the prodigal son in the gospel of Luke is rather obvious compared to the one found in Buddhism. The son’s leaving of home represents rebellion against God; the attitude we know as sin. His lifestyle of sin eventually leaves him penniless and feeding swine, a job that would be considered the lowest of the low in Jewish society. This represents the miserable human condition that we find ourselves in when we live lives of sin. Eventually the son makes the decision to return to his father in humility and ask for forgiveness. In the parable the son is welcomed with love and compassion and his father throws a party for him to celebrate his return. The purpose of Jesus teaching this parable is to teach sinners of our need for repentance; a turning away from sin and a return to communion with God.
The meaning of the Buddhist parable is quite different being that it differs on many key details. As with the parable taught by Jesus, a young man leaves home, however in the parable taught by the Buddha the young man’s father is not wealthy to begin with so he is not leaving with any amount of wealth as does the son in the parable taught by Jesus. The symbolism that could possibly found here is that within Buddhism there existed no initial period of grace in which human beings were reconciled to God and after which we fell into sin. In Buddhism the attitude is rather that ignorance accumulated over many lifetimes of physical existence inhibits our ability to view reality as it is. The primary struggle between good and evil or righteousness and sin is less stressed in Buddhism whereas the struggle between ignorance and the extinction of ignorance and suffering and is more apparent.
Within the Buddhist parable, the son wanders from town to town in search of work and manages to support himself to a degree. Eventually, the son stumbles upon the house of a man who seems to be a king due to his apparel and his being waited on by servants and the like. What has happened is that the son’s father has accumulated a vast amount of wealth while his son was away to the point in which his son does not even recognize him. Within this parable the father represents the Buddha and the essential Buddha-nature which is said to exist within all human beings. It seems that the father’s accumulation of wealth represents the achievement of Buddhahood. However the father is troubled because he lacks an heir for his wealth.
As the Buddhist parable continues, the son is noticed by his father and he sends his servants to fetch him. The son is frightened by this and feels that he is going to be imprisoned. The son eventually faints and this is witnessed by his father at a distance. The father realizing the impression he has made on his son and does not wish to cause him any further distress so he does not tell his servants that he is the man’s father. Instead he instructs them to sprinkle cold water on his face and to set him free. The sudden release surprises the son. The son is going to leave in search of work elsewhere, however the father devises a plan to hire his son without revealing to him that he is his father. He sends two miserable looking servants with payment for him in advance for performing work at his father’s estate and thus hires his son.
Here is where I believe the primary difference between the two parables exists. In the parable taught by Jesus, the son is instantly received and reconciled to the father and there is much celebration. This is symbolized in Christianity through the death and resurrection of Christ. It is by his shed blood that we are reconciled to our Heavenly Father and begin our repentance; our turning away from our past sinful lives to lives of righteousness. However, within the Buddhist parable, there is no instant reconciliation. Instead the son is made to work and slowly attain status working at his father’s estate. In the end of the Buddhist parable, the father is old and dying and he then reveals that his son is indeed his son and heir to his fortune. The father does care about the son, but the love is hidden and is not revealed fully until the end when the son receives his inheritance.
The two inheritances in the two parables are very different in what they symbolize. In the Christian parable, the inheritance is a cleansing of sins and the free gift of salvation by which we are allowed to enter God’s kingdom upon our death. This cleansing of sins and salvation is a gift that is given upon acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior as opposed to the Buddhist view in which one must strive to overcome ignorance by gaining wisdom and merit over a period of many rebirths. The inheritance in Buddhism is the attainment of an impersonal Ultimate Reality or shunyata, the realization of the emptiness of all things including the personhood.
A character that is present in the parable taught by Jesus but is not present in the Buddhist parable is the second son. In the Christian parable there is an older son who is working in the fields at the time of the prodigal son’s arrival. He approaches the house and hears music and approaches his father as to what the fuss is all about. The father tells his older son that they must celebrate for his lost son has now returned home. The older son is upset at this for he has always obeyed his father and his father had never thrown a celebration for him. However, the father assures him that all he has is his. The purpose of this character in the parable was seemingly an attack at the Pharisees and other seemingly devout religious at that time who were arrogant in their ways and failed to acknowledge their sins and maintain a sense of humility.
Why the Buddhist parable lacks this character in his parable is in my opinion due to the fact that the Buddhist teaching differs in its overall purpose and direction that it leads its followers in. The purpose of the Buddhist teaching is to extinguish the sense of self known as our ego also known as the attainment of nibbana, a word meaning literally to “blow out” as one would a candle. The Buddha is instructing his disciples through this parable that they must continually, through many lifetimes, accumulate wisdom and merit in order to become bodhisattva beings (spiritually advanced beings that remain in the cycle of birth and death in order to help all other beings attain nibbana). There is no need for the second son because, although there are teachings of humility found in Buddhism, the overall purpose is not one of overcoming sin and achieving a personal relationship with a divine Creator but rather to continually obtain wisdom and merit over many lifetimes to eventually achieve higher states of spiritual development hopefully ending in Buddhahood.
What I think becomes apparent in the two parables as to their major difference is also manifest in the major difference between the very religions themselves. Within Christianity, we are under a doctrine of grace and by no means of our own doing do we attain any higher level of spiritual development. It is by admission of sins, forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice, and repentance that we attain the Father’s inheritance; eternal communion with Him in Heaven. As opposed to Buddhism, this is all offered to us as a free gift available upon request of the Holy Spirit. Within Buddhism one must rather work through many lifetimes to attain the father’s inheritance; the extinguishing of one’s personhood through ardent struggles of spiritual development and slow progression as demonstrated by the sons work in his father’s estate for many years before receiving his inheritance. It is a contrast of grace and salvation versus work and eventual extinction. What I think also becomes apparent at this point is which is the better deal.
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