CHRISTIANITY AND BUDDHISM
Buddhism was spawned in a Hindu environment, and therefore has some similarities to Hinduism. Just as is the case for Hinduism, there are countless forms and expressions of Buddhism. Many of the same criticisms that are used against Hinduism have been used against Buddhism. “Buddha” is a word which means “awakened one.” Buddhism began with a man who was given this title after he was asked whether he was a god, or an angel, or a saint, and he replied that he was none of these things, but that he was “awake.” Buddha
(or Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas) was born in 560 B.C. in northern India, about 100 miles from Benares. He was born a prince, an heir to his father’s throne, but when he was born, the fortune tellers told the father that he was an unusual child, destined either to unite all of India into one kingdom, or, if he forsook the world, to become a world redeemer. Because of this, the child was brought up completely sheltered from all forms of misery in the world, and he was given all of the pleasures that the world could offer. He was to be shielded from any contact with sickness, decrepitude, or death. However, one day, despite
the best efforts of the servants of the king, he saw an old man who was decrepit, broken-toothed, gray-haired, and bent of body, leaning on a staff, and trembling. From this, he learned the fact of old age. Shortly afterward, he saw a diseased body lying by the road, and later, a corpse. On a fourth occasion he saw a monk and he thus learned the possibility of withdrawal from the world. He said, “Life is subject to age and death. Where is the realm of life in which there is neither age nor death?” He became acutely aware of the evanescence of the things of the world. At the age of 29, he secretly left his father’s kingdom to begin a search for enlightenment. He learned from two of the foremost Hindu masters of his day, and, after six years, joined a band of ascetics. This taught him the futility of asceticism, and he therefore devoted himself to a combination of rigorous thought and mystic concentration along the lines of the fourth “path” of Hinduism, raja yoga. At one point, he seated himself beneath a fig tree (Bo tree) near Gaya in northeast India, and vowed that he would not arise until he had attained illumination. He felt that his being was transformed, and he emerged awakened. He was filled with rapture, and he therefore could not leave for seven days. On the eighth day he tried to arise, but he was lost again in bliss, and was not able to rise up for another 41 days. He experienced what he considered to be a speech-defying revelation that could not be translated into words. For the following forty-five years, he spread the ego-shattering, life- redeeming “elixir” of his message. He founded an order of monks, and inquirers came from many distant places, all of whom he welcomed. Many people were profoundly affected by Buddha’s life and ministry. He felt that he had risen to a plane of knowledge far beyond that of anyone else in his time, and his followers felt that when they were with him they were in the presence of “something very like omniscience incarnate.”1 Although he was under constant pressure during his lifetime to allow himself to be worshipped as a God, he rebuffed it categorically, insisting that he was human in every respect. He seemed to have an unusual ability to discern character, and he was never taken in by hypocrisy or fraud. In conversation, he was always able to move on to that which was authentic and genuine. Buddha refused to talk about metaphysical questions: It is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their opposites are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair . . . I have not spoken to these views because they do not conduce to absence of passion, tranquility, and Nirvana.2 Buddha said to his followers that when he was gone, he would really be gone; that they should not bother to pray to him. He was there only to point out the way to them. They had to work out their own salvation with diligence. Buddha’s religion was devoid of miracles of any kind, and he condemned the use of divination, soothsaying, and fortune telling. Direct, personal experience was the final test for truth. His approach was essentially pragmatic, concerning exclusively with problem-solving. He made a formal declaration of four “noble truths” after his awakening. The first is that of the existence of suffering. He recognized that the affairs of mankind and of society are in the most imperfect state imaginable, and in a state of absolute misery almost bordering on chaos: Life in the condition it has got itself into is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It has slipped out of joint. As its pivot is no longer true, its condition involves excessive friction (interpersonal conflict), impeded motion (blocked creativity), and pain.3 All of life is subject to the trauma of birth, the pathology of sickness, the morbidity of decrepitude, the phobia of death, being tied to that which one hates, such as disease, and being separated from that which one loves. Huston Smith writes: The First Noble Truth concludes with the assertion that the five skandas are painful. As these five skandas are body, sense, ideas, feelings, and consciousness–in short the sum total of what we regard as human life-his statement amounts to the thesis that the totality of human life in its usual condition is steeped in suffering. In some way life has become estranged from reality, and this estrangement precludes real happiness until it be overcome.4 The Second Noble Truth, that of the origin of suffering, explains the cause of life’s dislocation as the desire to seek fulfillment of our passions, needs, and wants. To become completely selfless removes this problem. “Rare indeed is the man who is more concerned that the standard of life as a whole be raised than that his own salary be increased. And this, says Buddha, is why we suffer.”5 According to the Third Noble Truth, that of the extinction of suffering, the cure of life’s disharmony lies in overcoming selfish craving. The Fourth Noble Truth, that of the Path that leads to the Extinction of Suffering, explains how this cure can be effected. Our release from this bondage can be accomplished by means of the “Eightfold Path,” by which a man is totally
remade and left a different being, cured of life’s crippling disabilities. The first step of the eightfold path is right understanding. One must believe in the truth of the Four Noble Truths. The second step is right thought or aspiration. We must be certain that we wish to attain total enlightenment. Third is right speech. We must notice any lack of charity in our speech and adjust our thinking accordingly. We must proceed toward truth in everything we say. Behind our arguments and defenses is a fear of revealing to others and to ourselves what we really are. Such protective devices must be overcome. The fourth step is right action, or behavior. We must understand our behavior, reflect upon what we have done, and improve ourselves in accordance with the five precepts: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not be unchaste, and do not drink intoxicants. The fifth step is right livelihood. We must be involved in a livelihood that promotes life instead of destroying it. Sixth is right effort. One must exercise the will in the effort to develop virtues and curb passions. Seventh is right mindfulness, or the use of the mind for continual self- examination. We must trace our moods and emotions to their causes and not allow them to influence us to do evil. The final step of Buddhism’s “Eightfold Path” is right concentration, or right absorption, which is substantially the same as the series of techniques involved in Hinduism’s fourth path, raja yoga, or the way to God through psychological exercises.6 Buddhism’s similarity to the Hinduism out of which it was born becomes apparent when we come upon this final and most important step of the eightfold path. Buddhism looks upon this state of enlightenment as the ultimate answer to the problems of existence. As we compare Buddhism to Christianity it becomes immediately apparent that, even to a greater degree than Hinduism, Buddhism diagnoses beautifully the problem of human existence. Consider, for instance, the following comments on the First Noble Truth from The Word of the Buddha: Subject to decay, disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, the desire comes to them: ‘O, that we were not subject to these things!’ ‘O, that these things were not before us!’ But this cannot be got by mere desiring; and not to get what one desires, is suffering.7 Buddhism struggles for an answer to this problem, and does so as well as can be expected apart from revelation from God, but once again, christianity supplies the missing ingredient. It is the solution to the problems so clearly delineated by Buddhism. Of course the human condition is miserable. If, as it says in Genesis, man fell and brought the curse upon himself, then it is not at all surprising that, apart from revelation, Buddhism has been able to discern that there is something terribly wrong with the world in which we live. We live in terrible disharmony due to sin, and this is accompanied with illness, pain, decrepitude, suffering, and death. Buddhism rightly points out that there is a relationship between this suffering in all of its forms and selfishness, but it is not able to offer an explanation as to why these things are as they are. Christianity provides us with the answer to this question: Adam and Eve fell, bringing the curse upon all of mankind, along with suffering and death. Jesus Christ is the answer for which Buddha was looking.Christianity provides the answers to all of the questions that Buddha pondered. Buddha sought the answer in Hinduism, because he did not know where else to look for answers. But about 480 years after the time of Buddha’s death, Jesus was born. Redemption came to all of humanity through His death and resurrection about 33 years later. This redemption from the effects of the fall included redemption from sin, disease, pain, aging, and death. If the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in us, He will quicken our mortal bodies, raising us to newness of life, both spiritually and physically. Because of its clear understanding of the true condition of fallen mankind, Buddhism provides one of the clearest evidences for the truth of the Christian revelation. It would not have been surprising at all if, had Buddha had met Christ, he would have become a Christian. Buddha understood man’s dilemma, and he knew man needed to be freed from selfishness and death. Confronting Christ, he would probably have recognized immediately that he was beholding the very redemption for which he yearned and of which he had perhaps had a foretaste. Of course, there are major differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism is certainly indifferent to any personal creator. According to Buddhism, creation was the result of some primordial ignorance and willfulness incomprehensible to us. This negative view of creation stems from the realization of the reality of suffering in the created world. Christianity also acknowledges the depth of this suffering, but recognizes that it is due to man’s fall. Prior to the fall, all that had been created was good. Thus, Christianity affirms the goodness of creation and the goodness of the God who created the universe, while Buddhism stumbles at this point. Another important difference between Buddhism and Christianity lies in Buddha’s belief in reincarnation. The image he used to describe it was that of a flame being passed from candle to candle. It is not surprising that Hinduism and Buddhism adhered to the idea of reincarnation when one remembers that both of these religions acknowledged man’s desire for infinite being (or eternal life), yet affirmed the reality of physical death. Since neither religion knew of the resurrection of the dead, the yearning for immortality found solace in the idea of the transmigration of souls. Of course, Christianity differs markedly from Hinduism and Buddhism with respect to salvation. Consider the following quotation from Nyanatiloka’s introduction to The Word of The Buddha: The Buddha is neither a god nor a prophet or incarnation of a god, but a supreme human being who– through his own effort, attained to Final Deliverance and Perfect Wisdom, and became ‘the peerless teacher of gods and men.’ He is a ‘Saviour’ only in the sense that he shows men how to save themselves, by actually following to the end the Path trodden and shown by him.8 According to Christianity, man cannot save himself. Only God is able to save people. He is the active agent, and salvation is by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning work. Through his or her own effort, a human being cannot save himself. In contrast, Hinduism and Buddhism purport to show others how to save themselves.
1 Huston Smith, p. 95.
2 Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 63.
3 Huston Smith, p. 109.
4 Ibid., p. 110.
5 Ibid., p. 111.
6 Ibid., p. 118.
7 Nyanatiloka, The Word of The Buddha: An Outline of the Teaching of the Buddha in the Words of the Pali Canon
(Kandy, Ceylon: Buddhist Publication Society, 1968), p.4.
8 Ibid., p. ix.