Over the last few decades, especially in Europe and North America, various groups encouraging study and dialogue, places of worship, and cultural centres have emerged that attempt to combine Christianity with Buddhism. Some individuals have magnified superficial similarities to the extent of syncretizing the two faiths. Others pursue this for academic curiosity or enrichment value since they consider much to be gained from opening themselves up to another worldview. Christian Buddhism can also be an appealing package for the spiritual consumerist.
The Society for Buddhist-Christian studies was formed in 1987 to develop the continued interaction, from large-scale conferences that occurred in Hawaii between Buddhist and Christian scholars and practitioners that arose from the beginning of the eighties.i They produce their own journal and their mission purpose is to facilitate comparative study and interaction between Buddhism and Christianity from both a historical and contemporary framework.ii
In 2010, an article appeared in the National Catholic Reporter in America written by the editor about the author of ‘Without Buddha I could not be a Christian,’ and Theological Professor Paul Tillich who has written extensively on the subject.iii Interestingly, he uses the term ‘double belonging’ and perceives that in Europe and North America the trend is increasing. He comments that Buddhism offers Christians practises and experiential techniques to more fully enter that which they believe, and stresses the importance of silence.
On a more grass-roots level and with respect of interfaith relations and dialogue, the editor of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland in a 2014 website article offered a couple of brief paragraphs concerning Christian-Buddhist initiatives. Further exploration provided links to The Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, European Network of Christian Buddhist Studies and Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue Commissions.iv
It must be duly noted that ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Christianity’ respectively encompass an incredibly broad range of forms and denominations. Thus Theravada, Mahayana and Zen Buddhism represent a wide spectrum of beliefs and practises as do Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox streams within Christendom. Hence it seems to be the case that certain groups from Buddhism and certain traditions from Christendom are open to inter-faith dialogue and practice yet sometimes set their parameters within their own theological framework. For example a self-proclaimed ‘Buddhist Christian’ blogger commenced his first article on the subject with a disclaimer that if people were to make a comment from a biblical literalist perspective they would simply delete that comment.v
Nonetheless the Dalai Lama produced a more reasoned evaluation, noting that followers of both religions can benefit from each other although the teachings of Buddha and Christ are not compatible.vi Within Christendom, it is particularly Roman Catholics who have been attracted to Zen meditation in an effort to renew mystical contemplation such as ‘Christian Zen’ or ‘Zen Catholicism’.vii Norman Geisler observed that Zen (mediation) Buddhism is the most influential form of Buddhism and has made deep inroads into Christianity and is of great interest to Christian apologists.viii
This article will explore some key areas including Jesus and Buddha, suffering and desire, sin and salvation, first cause and the origin of the world, and eternity. The subject area is so vast that there are obviously many others areas that could have been included. It is appreciated that there are many forms of Buddhism that haven’t been addressed specifically. I will aim to offer a constructive approach, reaching out to those who have adopted a ‘double belonging’ and also provide some guidelines for sharing the gospel with Buddhists.
There are some who maintain that the similarities between Jesus and Buddha are numerous and outweigh the differences. Articles and books have been written to establish the same premise, even suggesting that Jesus and Buddha would recognise each other as spiritual brothers. These similarities are often presented in terms of parallel ethics or sayings rather than determining their actual meanings. For example one could compare the Ten Precepts of Buddhism and the Ten Commandments.
If a few were selected about not killing, stealing or lying that may at first appear convincing. However, if the Ten from both faiths were put side by side, it would be clarified that the first four Commandments are specifically in relation to God, whilst Buddhism is not concerned with even trying to please or obey God. Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you soul and all your mind (Matt. 22:37-38), which again is a summary of the first four of the Ten Commandments.
Someone may attempt to list similarities in that Jesus and Buddha encouraged individuals to be humble, compassionate, and merciful, not to judge others, to love your enemies and to observe the golden rule. Very long lists and apparently impressive comparisons can easily be compiled this way, including selected short passages where the context, or the rest of the passage is not considered. The real question is whether that is actually significant?
A favourite illustration of the Universalist is to list a number of religions that observe the golden rule by selecting one short statement from each of the various canons from hundreds of pages that have actually been written. That is then stretched to make a superficial comparison of religions stating that because many religions affirm the basic idea of the golden rule, then they are basically the same.
But since when has the golden rule become the measuring tool for religious congruity? If someone was to make the effort to consider which God is being presented amongst the famous world faiths and examine the core teachings of those faiths, they would soon recognise that it would be like saying that all political parties are basically the same, or all cultures are basically the same, or all works of literature are basically the same.
Even though many apparent similarities could be listed and verses selected that, in isolation, appear to be stating a similar idea, if the respective texts were read either in context or entirety, it would soon become axiomatic that the worldviews of Buddhism and Christianity are polar opposites, that Jesus and Buddha’s teachings are mutually exclusive. With large volumes of writing in circulation, one would expect to find plentiful similarities by means of a surface level comparison.
David Burnett, author of ‘The Spirit of Buddhism’ states that Christians initially observing Buddhism start by comparing Buddha with Christ. He said whilst the historicity of the person of Christ is essential for salvation within Christian teaching, in contrast the Buddha attained liberation himself through the discovery of the teaching.ix In relation to the above I remember having a discussion with a Buddhist Monk as I was making a case for the importance of having a faith that is historically reliable. I almost fell over when he calmly responded, “What difference does that make?” I replied that I needed to believe in something and someone that was true, not just someone’s ideas or philosophy. In retrospect I would have tried beginning with sharing some of the stories of what Jesus did regarding His compassion, miracles and teaching and what difference He has made in my life before mentioning the former points.
If a person is still insisting that Buddha and Jesus are fundamentally the same then a discussion could follow pointing out:
The problem of suffering is pivotal in Buddhism. Buddha was largely sheltered from the sufferings in life until he left the Royal Palace of his upbringing and observed sickness, ageing and death. His Four Noble Truths are focused around the problem and origin of suffering and how to eliminate the delusion to achieve nirvana through the destruction of desire. The fourth noble truth involves following the path that leads to the cessation of suffering, known as the Eightfold Path, through right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Christians are inevitably and constantly asked questions regarding suffering and it is important that we acknowledge this in a meaningful and relevant way with Buddhists. When talking with a Buddhist, It would be helpful to share the experiences of Joseph, Job, Jeremiah and the Lord Jesus as the Man of sorrows, and then show how Christ has conquered sin and that in heaven there will be no more death, sorrow, crying or pain (Rev. 21:4).
‘When Jesus Christ is shared with Buddhists, His sacrifice as well as His resurrection must be emphasized and contrasted with the Buddhist teaching on detachment and emptiness. Others must see that Christians are willing to suffer for others, just as Jesus suffered for others. Such a testimony to cultural and Western Buddhists would be unique and powerful.’xi
Concerning the destruction of desire, it could well be asked if the motive or intention to eliminate desire is actually a desire in itself. Furthermore the elimination of desire seems to contribute little with respect of genuine love or altruism. If desire is to be destroyed, would it not follow that the desire to help the poor, or those suffering, or even to love someone would also be removed?
Please be aware that religious words such as God, sin, or holiness will inevitably mean something different to a Buddhist than a Christian. For that reason it would be both helpful and wise to avoid using terms such as ‘new birth’, ‘rebirth’, regeneration’ or ‘born again’ and to use alternatives such as ‘endless freedom from suffering, guilt and sin’ and ‘promise of eternal life without suffering’ or ‘gift of unlimited merit’.xii
In Biblical Christianity, all have sinned and have inherited original sin from Adam, and the wages of sin is death. We can only be saved by grace, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting in His substitutionary atonement, and His completed work on the cross. No amount of works can merit salvation. Only the sinless Saviour could redeem us. We have no righteousness of our own other than being united with Christ and having His righteousness imputed to us.
In contrast, neither sin nor original sin has any place within Buddhism.xiii Moreover, there is no concept of a personal saviour. The Buddha is not a saviour, and it is not even within the power of Buddha to wash away the impurities of others .xiv Liberation of one’s self is one’s own responsibility, placing the emphasis on self-reliance, self-discipline and individual striving. xv Buddhists recognise that their reason for suffering is because of desire, and once this desire is removed, they will no longer be subject to rebirths and will cease to exist.
Hebrews 9:27 states ‘And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgement’. This contrasts dramatically with the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation. Christians are not hoping to escape the cycle of rebirths but to have eternal life with Christ (1 Thess. 5:9-10). xvi
Jeremiah 17:5-10 teaches the exact opposite of what Buddhism affirms, desribes the deceitfulness of the human heart, and describes those trusting in themselves as cursed, while those who trust in God are blessed. Augustus Toplady’s famous hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ encapsulates the utter helplessness and inability for man to save himself and the need to trust in the Lord and to be saved from God’s wrath and to be made pure. xvii
The Bible affirms that God created the world and everything in it (Gen 1:1; Col 1:15-17; Acts 17:24). By contrast, in Buddhism, the world operates by natural power and law, not by Divine command. xviii The Buddha never provided an explanation for the origin of the world, other than reasoning that through apparent lack of evidence it cannot be known. xix Scripture confirms that God has created us in His image and that His invisible attributes are clearly seen (Gen 1:26; Rom. 1:20).
A question to ask a Buddhist in respect to the origin of the world is why is there something rather than nothing? xx Since it isn’t possible for nothing to create something, there must by necessity be a first cause. It therefore follows to ask, in addition to how the world began if God doesn’t exist, that if successive reincarnations are the result of deeds from a previous life, then how did the first reincarnation begin?
If human existence is only temporary and liberation from suffering by the ‘blowing out of human desire’ to achieve nirvana is the ultimate goal, this has serious implications regarding human value.
According to Buddhism, man is worthless, having temporary existence, though in Christianity man is of infinite worth, made in the image of God and will exist eternally. xxi
In Buddhist thought, man’s body is a hindrance, but for the Christian his body is an instrument to glorify God.xxii
Interestingly in a general sense, the Buddhist view of human worth and the physical body isn’t far removed from some Gnostic groups who sought to be liberated from their physical bodies.
Ultimately Buddhists are hoping that, as they strive to follow the way designated by Buddha through the Eightfold Path, they will eventually achieve nirvana, so that suffering and desire will be eradicated and re-births will come to an end.
The Christian on the other hand has a sure and certain hope. The Lord Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. They recognise that of their own merit they could never achieve or even contribute to their salvation in a lifetime of lifetimes. They neither trust in nor rely upon themselves but wholly trust in God and rest in His promises and His unfailing faithfulness. They will have eternal life in God and will also be amongst innumerable believers in God’s Kingdom from every tribe, kindred and nation. Suffering will cease and there will be no more death.
‘So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O Death, where is your sting?” O hades, where is your victory?”
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:54-57).’
vi J Isamu Yamamoto The Good Heart: A Buddhist perspective on the teachings of Jesus http://www.equip.org/article/the-good-heart-a-buddhist-perspective-on-the-teachings-of-jesus/
vii Consulting Editor J.I. Packer New Dictionary of Theology; Inter-Varsity, Leicester p113 (cf. W. Johnston, Christian Zen, New York, 1971)
viii Norman Geisler The Big Book of Christian Apologetics (Baker Books; Grand Rapids, 2012), p601
ix David Burnett The Spirit of Buddhism A Christian Perspective on Buddhist Thought (Monarch Books; London, 2003) p25
x Mark Water AMG’s Encyclopaedia of World Religions, Cults and the Occult (AMG Publishers; Chattanooga, 2006), p256
xi New Dictionary of Theology, p114
xii Ray Comfort The Evidence Bible (Bridge-Logos Publishers; Gainesville, 2002) When Witnessing to Buddhists p772
xiii Buddhism-Major Differences http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/snapshot01.htm (17.)
xiv Ibid, (4.)
xv Ibid, (5.)
xvi New Dictionary of Theology, p113
xviii Josh McDowell & Don Stewart Concise Guide to Today’s Religions (Scripture Press; Amersham-on-the-hill, 1992), p305
xix Burnett, p37
xxi McDowell & Stewart p306
xxii Ibid, 306