Monday, February 18, 2019

A Christian Perspective on Buddhism


Buddhism is the religion of roughly 488 million people. While most Buddhists live in Asia, Buddhism has gained new attention in the West over the past hundred years. Many Americans, even some Christian Americans, have found some elements of Buddhism to be attractive and have sought to incorporate them into their personal beliefs. Christians should realize, though, that Buddhism differs greatly from Christianity on a basic level and results in a vastly different perspective on life.

Buddhist Salvation

Buddhism arose in the context of India in the the 6th century B.C. During that time, Gautama (the Buddha) is said to have experienced “Enlightenment” (an experience many centuries in the making through various reincarnations), giving him insight into the true nature of reality. This gave him the ability to teach others how to escape the problem of samsara, the cycle of reincarnation and suffering that formed the background of Indian religious thought. His teaching began with the Three Marks of Existence. Buddha “contended that all things constituting the world as we know it, including persons, are marked by dukkha (suffering), anatta (absence of self), and anicca (impermanence)” (Netland, 61). Life is filled with frustration (i.e. suffering) because all things are continually changing and illusionary and yet we continue to treat things as if they were real and permanent. These marks of existence lead to the Four Noble Truths. These truths are that (1) existence consists of suffering and frustration, (2) suffering is caused by desire, (3) suffering can be overcome, (4) the way to overcome suffering is by following the Eightfold Path (Thompson, 49-50). Because the problem lies with us (we view reality wrongly), we can escape this problem by changing ourselves.

Yet, it is difficult to retrain our minds to conform to this new idea of reality. Buddha taught that to free ourselves of desires and to grow in “wisdom,” the Eightfold Path is necessary. Following the Eightfold Path requires one to correctly understanding reality; to have genuine intention to live rightly; to abstain from hateful and selfish speech, actions, and occupations; and to control one’s effort, mind, and concentration (Thompson, 50-51). The Buddhist, by following this path, progressively gains a deeper insight into reality and a deeper freedom from desire and frustration. As Buddha said to his first followers, it is this Eightfold Path “that was awakened to by the Realised One, which produces vision, produces knowledge, and which leads to peace, deep knowledge, Complete Awakening, and Emancipation….to the end of suffering” (Vin. Mahav., 53-54 [I.6.18, 22]). In common practice, the moral component of the Eightfold Path is summarized by the Five or Ten Precepts (depending whether is a layperson or monk) that one vows to follow. The Five Precepts are “1. To abstain from intentionally harming life. 2. To abstain from taking things not explicitly given. 3. To abstain from illicit sexual activity. 4. To abstain from harmful speech (lying, gossip, etc.). 5. To abstain from indulging in intoxicants (liquor or other drugs)” (Thompson, 96). In addition to these precepts, practices such as meditation are common to train the mind to experience the truth. An additional component is added in some strains of Buddhism: vicarious salvation. They would teach that one can essentially take a short cut by gaining from the work of others (usually those who have become Buddhas or bodhisattvas) through faith or devotion to them. In this way, a person can receive the benefits of the Eightfold Path without as much struggle and discipline. For example, in Pure Land Buddhism “Amitabha [a Buddha] promises to help all who mediate or call upon him. Pure Land, thus, was the ‘easy path,’ the way for those with faith in the salvific power of Amitabha” (Thompson, 79).

Different Problem and Different Solution

It should be noted that this way of salvation differs sharply from Christianity. In Christianity the root problem is sin, while in Buddhism the root problem is ignorance. Christianity emphasizes that man is guilty and disobedient to God’s law. Buddhism emphasizes that man suffers and is deceived by the illusory nature of this world. “Christianity is addressed to the sinfulness of men, and all the other problems are by-products of that. Buddhism is addressed to the misery of people, as Hinduism and Jainism also are” (Vos, 12). In Christianity the solution involves legal justification and reconciliation with God. In Buddhism the solution involves enlightenment, detachment from reality, and the cessation of frustration. In Christianity good works are caused by, and a response to, God’s gracious work in us. In Buddhism good works are usually done as ways to save one’s self. It is true that there is the possibility among some Buddhists for a vicarious savior received by faith alone, yet this vicarious salvation is still defined by the rest of the Buddhist system and has little to do with the Christian idea of Christ's righteousness being imputed to us so that we may be forgiven and adopted by God. Christianity is centered around God’s person, law, and love. We have rebelled against Him, broken His law, and thus earned His wrath. God saves us by forgiving our sins on account of Christ, bringing us into a loving relationship with Him, and making us more like Him. Buddhism centers around man’s consciousness. The problem is that man is conscious of suffering and the solution is to be free of that suffering by being free of existence. Christianity is a religion that is focused on pursuing something good - reunion and restoration. Buddhism is focused on escaping something bad.

Buddhist Inconsistencies 

Buddhism as a system is not free from internal inconsistencies. For example, it teaches that we should be concerned with escaping the bad effects of Karma that cause us to continue experiencing a distorted view of reality and suffering. Yet, what we experience now is primarily the result of actions in past lives. Much of what we do now will effect us in future lives. Thus, the motivation to do good and escape suffering is at least partly based on the fact of personal continuity between lives. Yet, Buddhism also teaches that persons (including souls) do not exist. “Person” is only a useful label for the collection of things like sensory awareness, conscious awareness, material forces, etc. What is carried on to the next life is not our souls, but only “the positive or negative qualities of consciousness” (Thompson, 49), i.e. Karma. This undermines personal continuity between reincarnations. “This religion tears the motivation out of doing what it wants you to do. It is moralistic, but then it doesn’t really tell you why you should be moral because your Karma is going somewhere else” (Bahnsen, 21). It would seem that the motivation to save one’s self is undermined by the fact that one does not exist as a person.

Another problem in Buddhism is that of authority. While Buddhism does have sacred writings (a vast collection in fact), it cannot claim the authority of a sovereign, all-knowing God as in Christianity. In Buddhism, true knowledge, which saves, comes through personal experience and discipline. In fact, among Buddhists is the idea that language cannot express the ultimate nature of reality (Thompson, 32). But one must have some knowledge conveyed through language and gained through the experience of others to enter the process of gaining this experience. This tension is felt by Buddha, who at first is opposed to sharing his knowledge with others. “This Dhamma I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond the sphere of logic, profound, understandable (only) to the wise.” (Vin. Mahav., 36 [I.5.2]). Buddha’s teachings were simply the result of his enlightenment; he had to learn them. He himself remained a man. At the beginning of his ministry he asserted his authority by claiming that he had attained perfection and nirvana and that therefore
“I will instruct you about the attainment of the Deathless, I will teach the Dhamma, (and) following the path as it has been preached, after no long time (you will attain)…that unsurpassed conclusion to the spiritual life, and will dwell having known, experienced, and attained it yourselves in this very life.” (Vin. Mahav., 49 [I.6.12]) 
The basis of authority was not in logical argument, but rather experience. Buddha had experienced it, and people would have to trust, just as Buddha had to, that his experience was not illusionary and that it led to true knowledge. Furthermore, Buddha himself taught that his followers should not accept things on anyone else’s authority, but only by one’s own authority. “[W]hen you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them” (Kalama Sutta, 10). Knowledge is only verified on the basis of one’s own experience. Buddhism is filled with the tension inherent in sharing and teaching a non-rational personal experience.

The Weakness of the Buddhist Worldview 

Besides formal problems, there are other aspects of Buddhism that simply make it undesirable or lacking. As we have already noted, Buddhism is a negative religion. In other words, it is primarily concerned with what it escapes, not with what it pursues. It focuses on cessation and the lack of suffering. This is reflected in its morals, which are all acts of abstaining. It is man’s desire to pursue, possess, influence, enjoy, or reform that causes his frustration. Buddhism is a religion of retreat. It admits defeat in the realm of the world and seeks a supposedly more realistic hope of detachment. It is a retreat from humanity, ownership, culture, rationality, and reality, all things which Christianity holds dear. Its “rest” is surrender and cessation. For Christians, the idea of perfect rest is a Sabbath rest. It is a rest that consists not in mere cessation, but also in the worship of God (Lev. 23:1-3). While Buddhism has tended to think of good as the absence of evil, Christianity has tended to think of evil as the absence or distortion of good.

The fact that Buddhism is an escape religion has impacted its social and cultural outlook. While Buddhists teach that compassion is a great virtue, compassion takes the shape of teaching others how to escape suffering through the Eightfold Path. Or perhaps it results in acts of kindness, but only as a way of freeing oneself of desire. It does not seek to construct something positive in society or culture. Art becomes a mere devotional tool or a way to train the mind, not a pursuit of beauty. Economic stewardship and delight in God’s creation are eschewed as forms of desire for what is not real. Science has little basis in a worldview that is based upon the fact that all material phenomena is in constant flux and is an illusion.

A Christian Interpretation of Buddhism

How then are Christians to view Buddhism? How do we explain it? A fundamental Scriptural passage for understanding other religions is Romans 1:18-32. There we learn that everyone has an underlying knowledge of God and naturally suppresses that knowledge (Rom. 1:18-20). Instead of worshipping God, they become fools by claiming to be wise, teaching false religions in exchange for the truth (Rom. 1:21-23). Since the Christian consensus began breaking down with the Renaissance, Western culture has generally tried to escape this sense of guilt and suppress the truth through secular philosophy or the distractions of entertainment and work. In the West we have been more like the preacher of Ecclesiastes who sought out all sorts of pleasures and occupations to counter the vanity of life. Buddhism, however, has realized the futility of these things. It has declared that all is vanity and actually finds relief in that. Instead, it seeks an escape from reality (which is God’s reality) altogether.

The consequence of man’s revolt against God, though, leads to the undermining of one’s self. It leads to death: death of the individual and of culture. The more consistently one rejects God, the more he will cut himself off from God’s reality. As it was with Adam and Eve, sin brings not only God’s wrath, but also exile from the Garden. Romans 1:24-32 speak of representative self-destructive behaviors that result from the rejection of God. In the case of the Buddhist, this suppression of the truth leads to the abandonment of reality. Even sinful pleasures have lost their appeal. The only good thing about life is the ability to help others escape it. The goal is to be beyond life and death–they call this immortality, but it might be better called eternal death.

In the end, we should view Buddhism as foolishness, though understandable foolishness. It should stir in us compassion for those who follow it. As Paul’s spirit was provoked within him when he observed the idols of Athens, so should our spirit be provoked when we observe Buddhism and its influence on so many millions of people. We should also be wary of attempts to blend Buddhism with Christianity. Despite superficial similarities, Buddhism and Christianity are systemically different. While studying Buddhism might help us understand other people better, it is certainly not a religion parallel to Christianity.

From a Christian perspective we see that a religion of escape, built upon questionable authority, that views existence as pain and illusion, is a pitiful religion. This study should fill us with gratitude for a worldview that is filled with beauty, truth, and goodness. We can delight in the world God has made, worshipping Him as the all-good sovereign, and live in hope of a future glorification. We can endure suffering, knowing that evil is not original, but a perversion that will be eradicated. We can rest, knowing that our hope lies in God, an absolute authority, who can communicate with us freely through His word. His promise is sure, and our Savior is victorious. And finally, our worldview is better, not because we were smarter or anyway superior to Buddha. Rather, we have received this way of life through God’s grace. Grace, that is, and not Karma.


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Bahnsen, Dr. Greg “Lecture 21 — Methods XI (Buddhism)” A Biblical Introduction to Apologetics. Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 2015.

Kalama Sutta. Trans. Ven. Soma Thera.

Netland, Harold A. Dissonant Voices. Vancouver, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 1997.

Pew Research Center, "Buddhists," 2012.

Thompson, John M. Buddhism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Vinaya Mahavagga. Trans. Ānandajoti Bhikkhu. May 2014.

Vos, Dr. J. G. “Lecture 12: Early Rise and Development of Buddhism” PHL 404 World 
Religions. Lakeland, FL: Whitefield, 2008.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Anxiety and Prayer


In Philippians 4:5–7, we are told to deal with anxiety by taking comfort from the fact that the Lord is at hand and by making our requests known to God, the giver of peace.
"The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
This passage is similar to 1 Peter 5:6–7,
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." 
Both of these passages build upon what had already been written in Psalm 55:22. There David had exhorted,
"Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved."
Thus, we see a consistent pattern: God's people are not immune to feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear - but they are directed to go to God with these feelings, to seek His help, and to burden Him with these troubles. They are directed to pray with hope, trusting that God cares for His people, that He is near His people, and though for a time you may be humbled and distressed, God will guard and sustain you and at the proper time exalt you.

Psalm 55 gives us a more full picture of what this prayer might look like. It is not a bare request. In it, the suppliant does call for help (v. 16), but he also utters his complaint and moans (v. 17). It is a supplication, a plea, an argument. It is emotional and does not hide or suppress the anxiety that motivates the prayer.

The psalm begins with a bold appeal -
"Give ear to my prayer, O God,
and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!" (v. 1)
Verses 2b-8 consist of description. David, the author, describes his situation and his emotional condition.
"Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, 'Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest...'" (vs. 5-6)
David returns to the description of his external and internal distress in verses 9b-14, 15b, 20-21. He does not hide or suppress his worry or fear. In his plea to God, he describes his distress as reasons why God should help him. Then he does appeal for God to take action in verses 9 and 15:
"Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongues;
for I see violence and strife in the city." (v. 9)
Then in verse 16, David begins to do something different. In verses 16-19 and 22-23, he reflects upon and affirms the truth about God. Unlike David's false friend described in this Psalm, God is faithful. David repeats what God has promised to His people and David applies it to himself.
"But I call to God,
and the LORD will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he hears my voice." (vs. 16-17)
It is at the end of this Psalm that David says the words that are reflected in Philippians and 1 Peter. David moves from applying God's promises to himself to applying it to the godly in general. Those who cast their burdens upon the Lord will be sustained by Him (v. 22), but men of blood and treachery, though they seem ascendant for at time, will be cast down by the Lord (v. 23). David's faith has grown by this exercise of faith in prayer. By laying out his complaint before God (instead of simply brooding over it himself) and by applying God's promises to his situation, he has come to a place of greater faith, confidence, and peace. He ends this Psalm with the key conclusion: "I will trust in you" (v. 23).

Using this Psalm as a pattern does not mean that you will always be at peace by the time your prayer ends. In fact, this Psalm might be thought of as a pattern, not only of one prayer, but of a series of prayers over a period of time. In all of your prayers, you will want to mix in a description of your anxieties, your call for God to act, as well as reflection on and affirmation of God's character and promises. In this way, your faith will be exercised and strengthened. Prayer is a means of grace to the believer, and through it, in His timing, God will send His peace to guard your heart and mind. He will sustain and protect the one who trusts in Him.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Catholicity

Catholicity is not defined by union with the Roman papacy, but rather by union with Christ through the Spirit and faith in the gospel. This is what the Bible teaches in passages like Ephesians 2:19-22 and 4:1-16. The catholic (i.e. universal) church is composed of those who share "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5). Notably, in Ephesians 2:19-22, the church is not built upon the successors of the apostles (or successors of Peter in particular) but upon the apostles themselves, along with the prophets, Christ being the cornerstone. The apostolic and prophetic foundation is not to be found in a pretended successor like the pope, but rather in the divinely inspired writings they left behind - the Bible - which finds its center in Jesus Christ, the cornerstone. May all who claim the name of Christ abandon other foundations for the church and build their house on the rock. Upon this rock, Christ will build His church. All other ground is sinking sand (Matt. 7:24-27).

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Family Integrated Ministry of Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter (1615-1691) had an intense view of pastoral ministry. His book, The Reformed Pastor, written while he was in the midst of his pastoral labors in Kidderminster, is a stirring call for pastors to give personal attention to all the people of their parish. He exhorted pastors to not only preach publicly, but also to give personal instruction from house to house, discerning the state of the people and addressing their particular needs. But like many of the Puritans, he realized that the pastoral ministry of the church could not do it all, nor should it ignore the divinely ordained institution of the family in its approach to ministry. Here is how Baxter put it:
"The life of religion, and the welfare and glory of both the Church and the State, depend much on family government and duty. If we suffer the neglect of this, we shall undo all. What are we like to do ourselves to the reforming of a congregation, if all the work be cast on us alone; and masters of families neglect that necessary duty of their own, by which they are bound to help us? ... Neglect not, I beseech you, this important part of your ministry. Get masters of families to do their duty, and they will not only spare you a great deal of labor, but will much further the success of your labors. If a captain can get the officers under him to do their duty, he may rule the soldiers with much less trouble, than if all lay upon his own shoulders. You are not like to see any general reformation, till you procure family reformation. Some little religion there may be, here and there; but while it is confined to single persons [i.e. individuals], and is not promoted in families, it will not prosper, nor promise much future increase.” (The Reformed Pastor, 100-102)
Therefore, part of his ministry was to train the fathers to lead their families in the ways of the Lord. Fathers were to lead family worship, catechism instruction, and Sabbath keeping. They were to promote religion by word, example, and the way they managed the household.

There was good biblical basis for such an approach. In Ephesians 5:25-27 husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and one of the things it tells husbands to imitate is the fact that Christ cleansed His church with the word. 1 Corinthians 14:35 tells wives to look to their husbands for instruction. In Ephesians 6:4, we read “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” While Abraham was unique in some respects, it appears from these New Testament passages that what God said of Abraham in Genesis 18:19 is still relevant for fathers today: "I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him."

Baxter practiced what he preached, and his ministry bore good fruit. Kidderminster was a changed place after Baxter's pastorate. Indeed, the emphasis on family religion was a strength of Puritan and Presbyterian churches in general. Yet, it is sorely lacking today. The family itself, and the father's position in the family, is weak in the modern age. The church has learned to rely on programs and activities that largely bypass any reliance on families and fathers. But what Scripture teaches, and what Baxter observed, is still true and relevant.