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 sixty 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.


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.


Unknown said...

Curious to see if you actually post this. You call Buddhism a "pitiful religion." No, what is pitiful is your inadequate understanding of Buddhism. You will never hear Buddhists talk of other religions the way Christians (yourself?) talk of other religions. Buddhism is not an "escape" religion. You will find Buddhists at the forefront fighting for racial justice, against social inequities, and for the climate. Christians? Not so much. How many supporters of Trump call themselves "Christians?" Oh, by the way, I grew up Christian in the USA. Am I a Buddhist? I don't call my self that, though I practice the 8-fold path, meditate at least two hours a day, attend silent retreats practicing meditation the way the Buddha taught it. I don't know any Christians who have the courage to sit, go deep within, and see you they really are for an hour, let alone 20 minutes. No, they beg forgiveness, think they get it, and thus believe they "escape" true accountability. Unless they are like Thomas Merton. He is a Christian who understood. Thank you for posting.

Peter Bringe said...

I did not say that Buddhists do not engage this world. Of course you will find Buddhists active in various causes. I did not write concerning all the individuals who practice Buddhism, but concerning the religion itself and its teachings and its goal. And a religion in which the goal is primarily one of escape, which is built upon questionable authority, and which views existence as pain and illusion, is a pitiful religion.

In addition, there is a long and well documented history of Christians who have been at the forefront of social reform. There are a number of books on this theme. Vishal Mangalwadi’s “The Book that Made Your World” is one of them. While not all Christians "walk the walk," Christianity as a religion promotes repentance, reformation, responsibility, and righteousness rooted in love for God and neighbor. There is also a long tradition of Christian meditation and self-examination, including people as diverse as monks and Puritans, which is rooted in biblical teaching. It sounds like what you are reacting to is not Christianity but negative traits of modern American culture - traits that have a negative impact on Christians and non-Christians alike.