Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad

Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad are among the most important and influential persons in history. They are remembered for the examples of their lives, their insights into the human condition and the nature of ultimate reality, and the religious movements they inspired. It would be hard to name another set of four persons who have more deeply affected so many human lives… Continue reading

In this course, we examine these four figures both separately and comparatively in an effort to grasp the essential features of their lives and teachings and to explore the factors that contributed to their greatness. We will attend to the similarities and differences in their messages, in the patters of their lives, and in the ways they impacted their followers and the rest of the world.

The investigation of each of the four follows the same general outline. To introduce each individual, we first sketch out the historical and cultural framework that informed his life and worldview. In each case, the subject of study was born into an ancient culture in ferment. The beginning lecture for each figure (except Jesus, for reasons noted below) expounds the nature of this societal turbulence and provides the relevant analysis for understanding each man in greater context.

Then, the next several lectures recount the major events in the life of the subject. We will consider the nature of the source material for our biographical sketches and the problems of gaining an historically accurate picture of each. We will attend to some remarkable aspects of their early lives: the claims of their noble lineages; the unusual circumstances surrounding their conception, birth, and family life; and their marital situations. In the life of each, we shall explore the pivotal moments of transformation in which some new insight is gained or new revelation received. Our Biographical sketches then close with discussions of their later years and deaths. Throughout these lectures focused on the events of their lives, we will try to gain a sense of the personal qualities and attributes that made them who they were.

Outlining the life history of each man provides the framework for examining the essential dimensions of their teachings and practices. In expounding the wisdom they offered to their followers, we will be interested in a set of common questions: How did each figure understand the nature of the world and ultimate reality? What assumptions did he make about existence and the nature of the self and society? What did each man envision as the final fulfillment of humanity and human individuals? What ethical and moral principles did he promote and why? Finally, what spiritual disciplines did he practice and teach as a means of attaining full humanity and relating to the ultimate reality?

To wrap up the study of each figure as an individual, we examine the larger reverberations of his life in his life in his immediate context and in world history. The focus of investigation will be principally the development of the religions with which he is associated, but the talk will not be limited to this. For example, we will consider Jesus as an important figure in Islam. I intend to distinguish sharply each individual¬† “founder” (a problematic concept, as I will explain) from the religion he ostensibly establishes.

The final three lectures in the series offer us the opportunity to reflect on these four in comparative perspective and suggest ways in which examples and teachings can continue to nourish the human spirit. One lecture is devoted mainly to a consideration of the similarities and differences in their personal lives. We will compare their cultural settings and upbringings. The next lecture will examine their teaching and practices. I will argue against the common perception that these four (or the religions with they are associated) simply teach the same thing. The points of divergence are mainly conceptual and theoretical, particularly in their understandings of the nature of ultimate reality and the world. We will also note that in each case these teachers considered the “self” as a prime ingredient in the unhappiness of human beings and taught methods for inculcating humility and compassion for others. The last lecture of the series tries to glean enduring lessons from these four and apply them to the world today. We will mention specifically these four and apply them to the world today. We will mention specifically the ideal of living a “noble” life, of cultivating the qualities of wisdom and compassion, of allowing the mind to settle and restore itself. We will also consider the implications of this study for addressing the “problem” of religious pluralism.