There is an historical Jesus effort. Is there an historical Buddhaeffort, and if there is, how can I read about it?
Although much of modern Buddhology involves historical research oflater developments in the tradition, there is not, to my knowledge, anyscholarly inquiry into Shakyamuni Buddha's historicity even remotelycomparable to the current Jesus history studies. There are good reasonsfor this. In all of Buddhism it is understood that there have been manyBuddhas before the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (ca. 6th century B.C.E.),and there will be many other Buddhas in the future. Buddhism's view of itsfounder does not share the crucial thrological aspect of Jesus' role INHISTORY held by much of Christianity.
The earlier Pali suttas sometimes have been considered morehistorically reliable in the West than the Mahayana Sanskrit sutras, someof which were clearly compiled even a thousand years after Shakyamuni'sdeath. However, even the Pali suttas were not compiled for two or threecenturies after the Buddha's death, and the earlier Mahayana Sanskritsutras appeared not very long after the Pali suttas. Even the laterMahayana sutras, and the Vajrayana tantras, claim to be the words ofBuddha, preserved esoterically until people were ready to hear them.
We really do not know what the historical Buddha actually said.The relative unimportance of history in traditional Indian culture also hascontributed to the lack of reliable historical sources. In Mahayana andVajrayana Buddhism there are vast pantheons of various buddhas andbodhisattvas in diverse realms who are venerated along with Shakyamuni.Although the historical Buddha is still highly venerated in most (althoughnot all) of these schools, and the story of his awakening is a majorparadigm, there is also a strong emphasis on the realization and enactmentof awakening in one's own life. There are a great variety of good modernand traditional biographies of Shakyamuni Buddha available, but not withthe same level of historical scholarship of the modern Jesus studies.
Is there any serious scholarly effort examining the hypothesis that Jesusleft Palestine in his teenage years and studied in India for a number ofyears and returned to Palestine to begin his ministry?
The idea that Jesus studied in India has been around for a while.But I am not aware of any detailed scholarly work that might confirm this,and I believe that it is unlikely than any such confirmation will ever befound.
According to an Episcopal priest friend and colleague inBuddhist-Christian dialogue, "The Christian scholarly consensus (including theJesus Seminar) is that Jesus gave no signs of being anything but anenlightened Jewish rabbi: he told stories like rabbis do and tried tostrip away false ideas about the holy, and about worship etc."
I would add that there clearly was some ongoing interaction betweenthe Mediterranean and India after Alexander's conquest. One good source onthis is the first three chapters of Stephen Batchelor's "The Awakening ofthe West" (Parallax Press). So there was likely some diffuse influence ofBuddhism in the milieus in which Jesus may have participated. Christians,in turn, may likely have influenced the early development of MahayanaBuddhism, and also later as Buddhism spread east on the Silk Road, alsotraversed by Christians. So we might well see commonalities and parallelsbetween the Gospels and Buddhism without Jesus himself ever having had anydirect contact with Buddhism, or with other Indian religious people.
My experience in studying the world's religions is that neither Moses,Buddha, Mohammed, nor any other founder like Joseph Smith ever appear tobelievers consistently through history (or at all); yet Jesus seems toappear to people (followers and seekers) continually throughout history andcontinuing today. I have read and heard many others also testify as to personal encounters with Jesus as God and as risen human. What do you make of such encounters and experiences which are different other religions' experience of the numinous and transcendent?
There are certainly many moving accounts of powerful Christianconversion or devotional experiences including visions of Jesus. But torespond from a Buddhist perspective, there have also been many accountsthroughout history, to the present, of people who have experienced visionsof buddhas, bodhisattvas, and great ancestral Buddhist teachers, and I knowthat similar events have been reported in other religious traditions.
In much of Buddhism such visions are respected but not consideredof ultimate significance. In Zen, for example, such visions are evenconsidered to be a potentially dangerous distraction from the real work.The emphasis of the practice and faith is one's own realization, enactment,and integrated expression of the awakened awareness experienced by theBuddha and others. This is similar to the priority of many Christians tothemselves strive to live as Jesus did.