Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Look at Buddhism from a Christian World View




Last year a popular book came out titled, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, received with much fanfare.[1] The book is written by Paul Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, of World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary. The suggestion is that Buddhism and Christianity are in harmony with each other and are equal expressions of the same fundamental truths. In the introduction to the text, Knitter also proclaims that “without Jesus I could not be a true Buddhist.” Coming out of the liberation theology tradition, which is common among the broader theological schools in the west, his principle interest is social justice and radical pacifism, which he links to both Christian and Buddhist traditions. In academia and the university system it is common and highly commendable to think of all religions as equally true and valid. The popular illustration is to think of all religions as different ladders that eventually lift each person to the same goal – the “divine.”[2] Although Knitter’s book has taken off with great popularity, one must question whether to what extent harmony exists between the Buddhist and Christian worldview.

Eastern religions, and especially Buddhism, came into great popularity in the U.S. with the rise of hippy culture and a general acceptance of pantheistic monism (though historically Buddhism is essentially a non-deistic religion). Buddhism does not necessarily reject the idea of god(s) but is simply not concerned in deistic speculations. Therefore in regards to epistemological and soteriological conversations there exists a great chasm between the east and the west. Knitter’s text does not begin to deal with those gaping discrepancies but glosses over them and appeals only to the similarity of Buddha and Jesus in their concern for social justice. Therefore doctrinal formulations are not even important to the conversation. James Sire, in The Universe Next Door, notes the challenges of Christian missionary efforts in the East:

It is, I think, no wonder Western missionaries have made so little headway with committed Hindus and Buddhists. They don’t speak the same language, for they hold almost nothing in common. It is painfully difficult to grasp the Eastern world view even when one has some idea that is demands a mode of thought different from the West. It seems to many who would like Easterners to become Christians (and thus to become theists) that Easterners have an even more difficult time understanding that Christianity is somehow unique, that the space-time resurrection of Jesus the Christ is at the heart of the good news of God.[3]

While I agree with Sire’s observation of the far-reaching chasm and divergence in worldviews, there are points of convergence that must be looked at, particularly the emphasis on suffering and the problem of lusts and desires that feeds into their understanding of what is wrong with the cosmos. First we must take a basic look at the historical development of Buddhism.

Siddhartha Guatama, according to the Tipitaka scriptures was born in modern day Nepal in the year 563 BC. He was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, in whose palace he was forbidden to venture out of. At the age of 29 he began a series of encounters outside the palace walls, which in Buddhist literature is known as the four sights, in which he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and finally an ascetic holy man. The only man that was at peace with the world was the holy man, and it was this fourth and final site that encouraged him to the leave the confines of the family palace and embark on a spiritual quest. Guatama studies with all the famous religious teachers of the day, mastering all the meditations and teachings they had to offer. Yet, he was not able to overcome the permanence of suffering, and therefore continued his quest. He next attemped an extreme form of asceticism with the Shramanas, closely related with the Vedic tradition. Here he practiced extreme forms of self-mortification, including fasting, breath holding, and exposure to pain, and flagellation. Legend holds that Guatama nearly starved himself to death.[4] In his final commitment to achieving true enlightenment he sat under a fig tree (Bodhi tree), vowing not to rise before finding true liberation (Nirvana). After many days he achieved it and was free from the desires of his mind, and the cycle of suffering and rebirth.


Although the histories and contours are far different, one with a little imagination might see some strong parallels with the spiritual question of Martin Luther. Though Buddhism is non-deist in orientation, there remain some similarities that are hard to ignore. Both men sought out a very deliberate path of spiritual enlightenment. Guatama sought an end to suffering and complete liberation, while Luther sought a journey in which he wanted to find the favor and mercy of God. They both set out on their way through very rigid forms of self-mortification, that ultimately did not lead them to the enlightenment that they were looking for. Guatama brought about a reformation of sorts out of the Hindu religion, as a way to escape the anxiety and suffering of the caste system and the endless cycle of birth and death. For Luther it was to overthrow the Roman system, which had submerged the chief article through a system of works righteousness and the plank of penance. With Buddha we see a sort of anthropology worked out that sees man and his desires as a negation of the ultimate reality. Therefore, the diffusion of man and the suppression of the ego, ultimately lead to “true being,” which is non being.


Buddhism was founded upon the ancient Indian religion and might be seen as a sort of reformation of the ancient Hindu religion. The development can be traced to the broader tradition of the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads. The Buddha himself and his teaching was not incredibly unique to his time, and therefore the religion should be seen as something entirely separate from the relio-philosophical marketplace of the time. Indeed, it was a product and collection of those ideas. Although Buddhism later came into greater conflict with Hindu orthodoxy, its adherent grew by incredible numbers in the north of India and eventually the greater part of Asia. Like Hinduism, the Buddhist worldview retains the foundational doctrine of karma. Karma is a universal moral determinism that spring from actions of body, speech, and mind. These actions bring about consequences that reverberate throughout the universe in the samsara cycle. For the western mind this is a challenging idea to fully comprehend, for there is no divine salvation or forgiveness for one’s negative karma. Karma is an impersonal force that is not dealt with individually or relationally with the divine. The great expanse of the universe is “unforgiving” and the laws of nature – of negative karma cannot be rewritten. Therefore on the karma balance sheet, there is no hope for cancelling a debt. The Buddhist is not dealing with a personal God, as relates to one’s negative or positive actions of body, spirit, and mind. It is a universal moral determinism that cannot be alleviated but through Enlightenment, and the extinguishing of the self. In certain forms of Buddhism, such as Vajrayana, the recitation of mantras is a means of cutting off or alleviating previous negative karma. Nevertheless, if true Enlightenment is not attained, these mantras do not ultimately release one from samsara cycle.

From a Christian worldview, it is striking to observe the awareness among Buddhists of a certain corruption in the universe. To be sure, they have no articulated doctrine of sin and depravity of man, but there is a sense of knowledge that bad action is a cause for disorder and suffering. Furthermore, they see suffering as a corruption or alien intrusion into the ultimate reality. I believe Christians have a significant inroad here to open up dialogue with the eastern religious worldview. Buddhists believe that suffering is predicated upon the lusts and desires of worldly and fleshly desires. Christians can certainly resonate with this and even agree, although we would see this through a confession of original sin and wanting to be our own Gods. Nevertheless, they are inroads to be sure.

Furthermore, that the Buddhist world view proceeds from an acute awareness of suffering is also helpful to prepare one for an appropriation of the Gospel. The Four Noble truths, which are foundational for the entire religious system, are dedicated solely to an explication of the reality of suffering and how to overcome it. In turn, the Eightfold Path lays out ethical and behavioral precepts that lead to the cessation of suffering (dukkha). The final victory, if it is to be achieved is found through Nirvana, which is a complete emptying or extinguishing. It is noteworthy to understand that the goal is a realization of a complete lack of inherent existence – a loss of the self completely. In a sense, a death of the individual, that is ironically a coming to life in the ultimate reality. From the Christian world view, the critical goal of the Buddhist seems to involve a denial of the self and of the very nature of creation itself. The motif of illusion in the eastern worldview is essential, so that everything seen exists only in the strata of relative knowledge, that is not to be trusted but viewed with a detached suspicion. The duality of the universe and the individual, as if they were separate realities, is an illusion that needs to be overcome through Buddhist meditation. In regards to a Christian apologetic here, reaching across this religio-philosophical chasm is a giant jump to make. The inherent value of the individual – every sinner – in the Christian worldview can hardly be emphasized enough. That God Himself, desired to become man – to suffer and die for the very worst sinner shapes and defines the value and importance of each human life. The incarnation and life of Jesus affirms the duality and distinction between creation and every man and woman.

In a Buddhist/Christian dialogue it seems necessary to lay out the narrative of the Biblical revelation of cosmology. Buddhism, which is predicated upon ancient Indian cosmologies, regards the human race as playthings of the gods, used for amusement. Though Buddhism is anti-deistic in orientation, it is clear that Buddhism has inherited the somewhat arbitrary value of the individual from Hindu tradition (I am not suggesting Buddhists are not compassionate and kind to one another). Therefore, the confession that man is made in God’s image is an idea so foreign to the eastern view that it makes soteriological conversations immediately divergent, given that man is robed with God likeness – realized fully in the advent of Jesus Himself. Therefore, I believe, in conversations with Buddhist the biblical revelation of creation must be systematically laid out. That man is formed in the likeness of His own creator and brought into communion is fundamental to laying out an anthropology, dealing with man’s existence and purpose in life.

A word must be said about the fundamental difference between Hinayana and Mahayana within the broader Buddhist tradition. When the Buddha obtained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree there were two courses set before him. The first is to keep his knowledge for himself and to pass into the pure bliss of Nirvana. The other course is to remain in the world and to pass on the necessary wisdom for others to seek and attain nirvana for themselves. The idea with Mahayana is that attaining this valuable wisdom is for the sake of passing it on to others, and to work toward universal enlightenment. This is not to say that Hinayana is less compassionate, for there is no greater good that passing into a state of Nirvana. Each school of thought claims that its expression is truest to the Buddha. Hinayana claims that it’s interpretation of passing to Nirvana is closest to the teaching, while Mahayana insist that they have reached the real spirit of Buddha’s teachings, which they relate to helping others reach Nirvana through compassion and teaching. The predominance of Mahayana Buddhism eclipsed Hinayana about 500 A.D.


Foundational to Mahayana Buddhism is the idea of Dharma, which may refer to the teaching of Buddha himself, or simply the actual world as it is. Dharma is also spoken of as “universal law” or the “ultimate reality.” It can be used as simply a word for truth itself or an expression of the way the universe truly is. There may indeed be some parallel here with the western understanding of “natural law,” articulated most clearly by Thomas Aquinas, asserting that there is a certain discernable moral order to the universe based upon personal conscience and a distinction between right and wrong, that is experiential. Nevertheless, the understanding of Dharma deviates strongly from the western view of natural law, given that its interpretation is grasped only by self-elimination through a transcendental wisdom.

In Buddhist thought, a rendering of how they conceptualize a soteriology is so radically different than a Christian conception, that the word may in fact be better off avoided. Given the fact that the goal of Buddhism, in a sense, is self-extinction and nothingness, which to the western mind is completely contradictory to its own idea of being saved. Nevertheless I will stick with the word, for it is accurate if we correctly understand that the Buddhist idea of liberation lies precisely in a sort of self-annihilation and diffusion into nothingness.

In order to properly understand the Buddhist soteriological world view three fundamental principles are essential: 1. All is transitory, 2. All is suffering, 3. All is egoless, and based upon these the Four Noble Truths: 1. All existence is suffering, 2. Suffering is caused by desire, 3. The extinction of desire leads to extinction of suffering, and 4. The way to extinction of suffering is the Eightfold Noble Path, the steps of which are Right View, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Behavior, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.[5] In the Buddhist worldview it is impossible to overestimate the significance of suffering as well as the broader eastern religions. For the Buddhist, suffering results from rebirth, which is due to Karma. In this series of rebirths the faculties cling to that which is illusive and temporary – which for the Buddhist has not real value and does not pertain to ultimate reality. In this endless cycle where one wills to live, one gets further caught up in karma and the endless cycle of birth and death. The goal then is a liberation from the atman to the non-atman or non-ego. This doctrine of the non-ego is incredibly difficult to understand and there are multiplicities of different interpretations of it. In short, the ego and individuality for the Buddhist is an illusionary idea that is precisely the problem that must be transcended. If there is an authentic ego or individuality it is only found in the realization of Dharmakaya found in the perfection of insight, in the all-encompassing one – of seeing ego, creation, and universe as one great indissoluble reality. This Dharmakaya is considered to be the most sublime and truest reality in the universe. This state however, according to the Buddha’s own teaching is “inconceivable.” Therefore, little can be said about it, other than the use of images such as rivers and the clouds to describe the complete dissolution of the ego.

A few words must be said about a Buddhist epistemology. According to Mahayana thinkers there are three different forms of knowledge and truth, Illusive (parikalpita), Relative (paratantra), and Perfect or Absolute (parinishpanna).[6] It is the object and goal of Buddhist meditation and instruction to lead to Absolute Knowledge (prajna). The first form of knowledge, which is an illusionary knowledge, is foundational for the Buddhist worldview. In this world view is it is very much a part of life that all is not what it appears to be. Many desires and experiences and even objects are likened to a mirage that has no reality in and of itself. A common analogy among Mahayana Buddhist is a rope and a snake.[7] The teaching proceeds that the ropes and the snake look essentially the same. Without a greater investigation that which appears to be true is not, often with a consequence that is fatal. The second form of knowledge deals with Relative Truth.[8] Relative knowledge[9] concerns the phenomenal world, which is universally experienced and real for practical purposes. Relative knowledge concerns the unenlightened and Buddhist put all world religions into this category, and reserve true knowledge as that which can only be attained through Buddhist meditation and teaching. Even for the adherent to Buddhism the great deal of normal daily existence is lived out in the realm of relative truth, for it serves ordinary life. The highest knowledge is “Void” (sunya), being named because nothing connected with relativity can be constituted in this knowledge. It is difficult to say much about it because no relative terms or words can be descriptive of it. It has no idea or logical representation. Void constitutes Enlightenment, also known as Nirvana.

Nirvana literally means “extinction,” and means a liberation from the disturbance of samsara that cycles through continuation of birth and death. When evil passions and desires from egoism are uprooted through Enlightenment, one can finally be “extinguished” and reach the “disappearance of form” merging with Oneness. The Buddhist however does not see this as a negation of being but rather its very establishment. In the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra we read: “When there is no more oil, the light goes out, but it means only the going out of the evil passions; as to the oil-container itself, it remains there. Likewise the Tathagata has all his evil passions extinguished but his Dharmakaya remains forever.”[10]

These are all the sorts of conversation necessary to begin a fruitful dialogue with the Buddhist. While the vast differences are certain to present challenges, the biblical revelation of creation, sin, and redemption are essential for striking up a bold witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The Buddhist worldview needs to be taken seriously and engaged with respect and dignity. Conversations will naturally have to proceed from an awareness that Jesus found it desirable to suffer for the Buddhist, the Hindu, those of the occult, and every philosophical persuasion. If this is maintained relationally, the confidence in dialogue must be apprehended through a belief that God’s Word is an efficacious Word that does and enacts what it claims.




[1] Knitter, Paul. Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. Oneworld Pubns Ltd, 2009. Print.
[2] In my undergrad experience at the University of Milwaukee this was the generally accepted thesis about world religions.
[3] W., James. The universe next door: a basic world view catalog. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988. 153-154. Print.
[4] Lopez, Donald S. Buddhist Scriptures. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Putnum, 2004. 33. Print.
[5] Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are outlined in  Lopez, Donald S. Buddhist Scriptures. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Putnum, 2004. 101. Print.
[6] These forms of truth are explicated in great depth here Von Glasenapp, Helmuth. Buddhism-A Non-Theistic Religion. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1972. 77. Print.
[7] Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955. 197. Print.
[8] I have chosen to capitalize terms that are capitalized in Buddhist texts.   
[9] Knowledge and truth are used interchangeably in Buddhist texts.
[10] Lopez, p. 182. 


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