The Teacher of Gods and Humans
In the Suttas, the Buddha is often referred to as a “teacher of gods and humans” (satthadevamanusssanam). However, since the propogation of Buddhism in West, and especially since the release of Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, everybody is quite aware of atheists within Buddhist traditions. Also, many people are not aware that the story of Buddha is also found within many different religious traditions – and not just as an incarnation of Vishnu within Hinduism.
The story of Buddha can also be found within the Abrahamic traditions as the Christian story of Barlaam and Josaphat, the Muslim Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf, and the Jewish Ben Ha’Melech Ve’ha’Nazir. Barlaam and Josaphat are said to have lived and died in the 3rd century or 4th century in India. The king-turned-monk Josaphat’s name is a corruption of the original Joasaph, which is again corrupted from the middle Persian Budasif (which itself comes from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva). Wilfred Cantwell Smith traced the story from a 2nd to 4th century Sanskrit Mahayana Buddhist text, to a Manichee version, which then found its way into Muslim culture as the Arabic Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf. The first Christianized adaptation was the Georgian epic Balavariani dating back to the 10th century. A Georgian monk Euthymius of Athos translated the story into Greek, some time before he was killed while visiting Constantinople in 1028. There the Greek adaptation was translated into Latin in 1048 and soon became well known in Western Europe as Barlaam and Josaphat. The story was translated into Hebrew in the Middle Ages as Ben Ha’Melech Ve’ha’Nazir.
Therefore the Buddha is often considered a saint to Thomas Christians (ancient Christians in India), and is also recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church. A version of Barlaam and Josaphat can be found here and The Life of Barlaam the Hermit, from the Golden Legend (or Lives of the Saints) can be found here.
This all also reminds me of the story of Upali. The Upali Sutta tells the story of a famous Jain who came to debate with the Buddha and prove him wrong. However, instead of being proven wrong, he was very impressed by the Buddha and decided to become a disciple right then and there on the spot. The Buddha told him to take more time to carefully think about this and to reconsider it before finally making a conclusive decision. Upali was even more impressed by this, saying that if it were any other teacher they would gloat and brag and go on about converting a chief lay-disciple of Mahavira. Upali then went on to say that he wouldn’t stand up until the Buddha accepted him. Therefore, the Buddha did on one condition: since he had been a Jain and gave alms to Jain monks, he should continue giving alms to Jain monks if he was to become a disciple of Buddha.
So if Buddha is already a part of your religion, and Buddhist practice can benefit pretty much anyone – what need is there to proselytize? The only intent of missionary work within Buddhism should be understanding. Buddha Dhamma doesn’t have to compete for converts. If you’re a Christian or Muslim or Jew or Hindu or atheist or etc. and you want to make the teachings of Buddha applicable to your daily life – then you must first become a good Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, atheist, or etc.