With the coming of Lent this week and Ash Wednesday (March 5), I’ve been thinking about the interesting parallels between the life of Jesus and the life of Buddha.
Prior to his public ministry, for example, Buddha disengaged from his ascetic companions and spent time in solitude. Although alone, he was not inactive.
He spent the entire time in meditation and reflection. During this time, he was visited by the devil-figure Mara, who sorely tempted the Buddha from the goal of awakening. Mara failed, and Buddha emerged from his solitude, it is told, in an enlightened state. He was brought nourishment, and shortly thereafter he began his first public teaching.
Prior to his public ministry, Jesus also disengaged from the world and spent 40 days and nights in the desert of Judea. During this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tempted him. As Jesus refused each temptation, Satan departed, and angels came and brought nourishment to Jesus. Soon Jesus gathered his disciples and began his public ministry of teaching and healing.
This life-event of Jesus is celebrated in much of Christendom as Lent, the solemn six-week season of preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Lent is characterized by prayer, penance, repentance, alms giving and self-denial. The story of Jesus’ temptation and the story of his crucifixion have been “mashed-up”—as the current saying goes—into Lent and Holy Week.
There is no comparable mash-up in Buddhism. Many Buddhist traditions do celebrate the death of the Buddha on Parinirvana Day, the day when it is said the Buddha achieved complete enlightenment or awakening on the death of his physical body at age 80 or so. This practice is not universal, however.
Some Theravada Buddhist traditions observe something similar to Lent in the form of a period called “Vassa,” often
glossed as “Buddhist Lent.”
Vassa occurs during the rainy (monsoon) season. In ancient times—prior to the establishment of temples and monasteries—the mendicant monks would cease their traveling and settle in a forest grove or the home of a patron for the three month period.
This custom predated Buddhism, but the Buddhists embraced the idea. Monks spent this time in more intensive meditation, and lay supporters would sometimes renounce routine practices, such as eating meat, drinking or smoking.
Just as Lent is not celebrated by all Christians, Vassa is not universally celebrated by all Buddhists. Both Lent and Vassa, however, are characterized by solemnity, introspection and self-denial.