The Essence of Wisdom, page 11-
The Buddha: “It is proper to doubt. Do not be led by holy scriptures, or by mere logic or inference, or by appearances, or by the authority of religious teachers. But when you realize that something is unwholesome and bad for you, give it up. And when you realize that something is wholesome and good for you, do it.”
There are so many outward and visible similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, that we can only ignore them out of choice to do so. Christians (I am one) believe there are substantial differences in the personhood and pedigree of these men, but their similarities in method and content of teaching are remarkably similar in many cases.
This saying of the Buddha is one of them. In the Sermon on the Mount, for one example, Jesus for all practical purposes threw out part of the old Hebrew law, which he considered unwholesome and bad, and proclaimed a radically new law, which he considered wholesome and good.
Matthew 5: 38- 42: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” referred to by Jesus, is found in the Torah, Exodus 21: 23-25, and in Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Long before its appearance in the Torah, however, that phrase appeared in the Code of Hammurabi in around 1760 B.C.E., a Mesopotamian set of laws usually regarded as the oldest, formally written set of laws known to exist anywhere. “An eye for an eye..” is how King Hammurabi defined what would be known as the law of equal retribution; or, as it came to be practiced, the law of revenge.
In other words, in ancient Mesopotamia, and later among Jewish tribesmen, if someone poked your eye out, you had the legal right to poke theirs out. In the 1790 years between Hammurabi and Jesus, that law had been followed, and followed, and followed. War had begat war, which begat more wars, and innumerable battles, fights, and other skirmishes.
It wasn’t working! Jesus could see that, even if no one before or since has been able to see it. So he threw something from his holy scripture out (“you have heard it said”) and introduced its opposite (“but I say”).
Now, just because almost nobody has paid attention to Jesus on this one, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It is simply an untried thing! Revenge is one of the most dearly beloved of all human emotions and one which apparently is impossible for us to give up. I had a recent letter from a friend who said even Jesus didn’t pay attention to his own teaching since he drove the money-changers from the Temple with a whip. He was justifying the use of automatic weapons and blanket bombing in Iraq, based on Jesus’ having used a whip on the money-changers. Owie!
I’ve read all kinds of commentaries on this one change-up in the legal plan of action by Jesus. All kinds of strange cirumventings and twists are involved in trying to make what Jesus said into a mere expansion of the meaning of the old law. But read it again yourself. It is impossible to turn Jesus into a revengeful, eye-for-an-eye reflection of our own worst instincts!
In an address to Agnes Scott College graduating seniors, 1999, the late author, Kurt Vonnegut had this to say about the Hammurabi code: “I myself have an axe, which I have ground as sharp as a razor. What would I like to do with it, if I could? I would like to plant it in the forehead of the Babylonian King Hammurabi, who lived almost four thousand years ago. “Hammurabi gave us a code which is honored to this very day by many nations, including my own, and by all heroes in cowboy and gangster films, and by far too many people who feel they have been insulted or injured, however slightly, however accidentally: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Revenge is not only sweet – it is a must!
“What antidote can there be for an idea that popular and poisonous? Revenge provides revenge, which is sure to provide revenge, forming an endless chain of human misery. Here’s the antidote:
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Amen.”
Bottom line: the Buddha had something important to say. Jesus had some magnificent things to say. It would do us well to listen, and act on what they had to say, before we run out of people to revenge ourselves on, or be revenged by.
(There are, of course, about five million other examples, personal and national, that would reflect the truth of what the Buddha was saying. This has been but one of them.)