Since the arrival of Christian missionaries in the East in the 13th century, followed by the arrival of Buddhism in Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, similarities were perceived between the practices of Buddhism and Christianity. During the 20th century the differences between these two belief systems were also highlighted. Despite surface level non-scholarly analogies, Buddhism and Christianity have inherent and fundamental differences at the deepest levels, beginning with monotheism’s place at the core of Christianity and Buddhism’s orientation towards non-theism and its rejection of the notion of a creator deity which runs counter to teachings about God in Christianity; and extending to the importance of Grace in Christianity against the rejection of interference with Karma in Theravada Buddhism, etc. The central iconic imagery of the two traditions underscore the difference in their belief structure, when the peaceful death of Gautama Buddha at an old age is contrasted with the harsh image of the crucifixion of Jesus as a willing sacrifice for the atonement for the sins of humanity.
Buddhists scholars such as Masao Abe see the centrality of crucifixion in Christianity as an irreconcilable gap between the two belief systems. Most modern scholarship has roundly rejected any historical basis for the travels of Jesus to India or Tibet or influences between the teachings of Christianity and Buddhism, and has seen the attempts at parallel symbolism as cases of parallelomania which exaggerate the importance of trifling resemblances. Reports of Buddhist practices stared to arrive in Western Europe by the 13th century, and were followed by trips by Christian missionaries such as John of Montecorvino and reports began to arrive in the 16th century as missionaries such as St. Francis Xavier arrived in the East.
In the 19th century, some authors began to perceive similarities between Buddhist and Christian practices, e.g. in 1878 T.W. Rhys Davids wrote that the earliest missionaries to Tibet observed that similarities have been seen since the first known contact: “Lamaism with its shaven priests, its bells and rosaries, its images and holy water, its popes and bishops, its abbots and monks of many grades, its processions and feast days, itsconfessional and purgatory, and its worship of the double Virgin, so strongly resembles Romanism that the first Catholic missionaries thought it must be an imitation by the devil of the religion of Christ.” In 1880 Ernest De Bunsen made similar observations in that with the exception of the death of Jesus on the cross, and of the Christian doctrine of atonement, the most ancient Buddhist records resemble the traditions recorded in the Gospels about the life and doctrines of Jesus. In 1904 William Crooke suggested that Christian rosaries had originated in India and arrived in Western Europe during the Crusades via its Muslim version, the tasbih.
In 1921 Charles Eliot, the British ambassador to Japan also wrote of apparent similarities between Christian practices and their counterparts in Buddhist tradition, and suggested a dependent origin for both traditions. Early in the 20th century Burnett Hillman Streeter suggested that the moral teaching of the Buddha has four resemblances to the Sermon on the Mount. Late in the 20th century, historian Jerry H. Bentley also wrote of similarities and stated that it is possible “that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity” and suggested “attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus”. Some high level Buddhists have drawn analogies between Jesus and Buddhism, e.g. in 2001 the Dalai Lama stated that “Jesus Christ also lived previous lives,” and added that “So, you see, he reached a high state, either as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened person, through Buddhist practice or something like that”.
R.C. Amore refers to a miracle from the first chapter of Mahavagga, the Book of the Discipline, IV, where Buddha himself displayed his power over nature. Amore thinks that Jesus himself was influenced by Buddhist teachings and that Buddhist material continued to influence Christianity as it developed. R. Stehly gives six examples of parallel themes between the story of Peter’s walking on the water and the Buddhist Jataka 190. The Sinologist Martin Palmer has commented on the similarity between the Blessed Virgin Mary and Guan Yin. Guanyin is the Chinese name for a male bodhisattva in India and Tibet, Avalokitesvara, who underwent a gradual feminization process in China late in the first millennium CE, after a period of proselytization by Turkic Nestorian Christians.
The Tzu-Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist organization, also noticing the similarity, commissioned a portrait of Guan Yin and a baby that resembles the typical Madonna and Child painting. Z. P. Thundy has surveyed the similarities and differences between the birth stories of Buddha by Maya and Jesus by Mary and notes that while there are similarities such as virgin birth, there are also differences, e.g. that Mary outlives Jesus after raising him, but Maya dies soon after the birth of Buddha, as all mothers of Buddhas do in the Buddhist tradition. Thundy does not assert that there is any historical evidence that the Christian birth stories of Jesus were derived from the Buddhist traditions, but suggests that as an avenue for further research.