Points of Contact: Buddhism

Introduction

Buddhism is growing. In Taiwan, this ancient religion has experienced a powerful resurgence in the past twenty or thirty years, with new temples, monasteries, seminaries, a large charity organization, and increasing public presence in the government and the media. After the anti-religious fervor of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese began to revert to their traditional Buddhist beliefs and practices, helped greatly by visiting tourists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia, who expressed interest in seeing temples and then donated large amounts to have them rebuilt and refurbished.

For our purposes, “Buddhism” is not the same as Chinese popular religion, though most Chinese probably don’t know the difference. Roughly speaking, there are two main types of Chinese Buddhism (itself one of two major kinds of worldwide Buddhism): “Traditional” – Chinese, Zen, Tibetan, etc., and “Modern” - found in Taiwan, North America, and elsewhere.

Similarities with Christianity

Despite fundamental differences, there are actually quite a few surface similarities between Buddhism and Christianity. Perhaps we can call these “conversation starters,” since they provide points of superficial contact that can lead to deeper discussion.

Buddhists see clearly the transitory nature of this life, and advocate achieving distance from its passions and desires by meditating upon just how fleeting is our short stay on this earth. In that sense, they agree with Christians, who are urged by the Bible not to set their hopes on earthly things (Colossians 3:1; 1 Peter 1:13). To Buddhists, the cause of our inner discontent lies in our attachment to this world, with which Christians would agree, at least to some extent. Jesus, after all, pointed to the reward that would come in the next life, and Paul advocated walking by faith, not by sight, while John commanded that we should not love this world, or the things in it, or be captivated by lusts arising from excessive entanglement with the world.

The problem of suffering occupies a central place in Buddhist teaching. The Buddha himself was overcome by the suffering he saw one day, and sought to find the way out of what seemed to be an endless cycle of misery. His solution was to meditate, as we have seen, on the ephemeral quality of this earthly existence, and thus to tame the desires that are attached to it and thus evoke pain. The Bible also speaks often about suffering. Jesus did a great deal to alleviate pain and sickness while on earth, and from one standpoint, you could say that he came to this world in order to bring an end to suffering for his people.

Importance of enlightenment: Actually, “Buddha” means “the Enlightened One,” for he believed that our basic problem stemmed from ignorance, from which he wanted to free his followers. Jesus, too, came to bring light. In fact, he claimed that he himself was the light of the world (John 8:12). Paul prayed that God would enlighten the hearts of his readers and urged them to walk as children of light. Both Jesus and Paul assumed that ignorance of God and his truth kept people in darkness, and they claimed to bring liberating light.

Inner transformation through meditation plays a key role in both Buddhism and Christianity, for the real battle takes place in the mind. If we are to respond well to the vicissitudes of life, we need to transform our minds, so that they hold to right thoughts based on true reality. That requires constant pondering of the eternal verities, to keep us from being led astray by what we see around us.

Both Buddhism and Christianity possess a collection of sacred writings, which are taught and studied by faithful disciples.

As distinct from Buddhism and perhaps some narrow forms of Judaism, Buddhism advocates “broad love” (not confined to family or nation). Christianity, likewise, tells us to consider everyone we meet along the way to be a “neighbor” whom we are to love as we love ourselves.

Buddhism, like Christianity, enjoins upon its followers the necessity of doing good works, especially works of charity. Modern Buddhism in Taiwan has seen the formation of huge charitable organizations that are matched by those that have been funded by Christians worldwide for centuries.

Another similarity lies in the belief in moral standards. Both religions have concepts of virtue and vice, and their ethical precepts often overlap. Likewise, both believe in merit and demerit, in the sense that our good works and our bad works have significance, and are noticed by God. (Roman Catholics would agree even more closely with Buddhists, because they think that Christians can acquire merit before God by doing virtuous deeds.) As a consequence, both popular Chinese Buddhism and Christianity teach that there will be rewards and punishments in the next life, when the righteous will be happy and the unrighteous will suffer torments.

In the Pure Land tradition, believers are promised a blissful existence in a Western paradise. Some simplify the requirements for this sort of salvation to the point of offering it to those who chant the name Amitabha (Amituofo) with faith in the Buddha. Virtuous actions were also encouraged, of course.

When Christians speak of Christ, who came from heaven to save mortal humans, Buddhists refer to both the Buddha and to many Bodhisattvas, people with special merit who defer their own entrance into Nirvana in order to assist mortals still on earth gain buddhahood.

Some features of Chinese Buddhism find at least superficial counterparts in certain practices of Roman Catholicism, such as praying to the saints, offering incense, emphasis upon merit, priests, monks, and temples. The bodhisattva Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) bears a close resemblance to Mary in Roman Catholic devotion; some, indeed, observe that the transformation of Guanyin from a male to a female deity took place at about the time the Christianity became known in China.

Modern Buddhism devotes less attention to rituals, and concentrates instead upon internal transformation through meditation and strict mental control, thus somewhat resembling evangelical Protestantism more than Roman Catholicism or “high-church” Protestant worship.

Differences

Though conversations between Christians and Buddhists may start with the similarities noted above, at some stage the fundamental differences between the two faiths need to be pointed out. Some of these include:

They hold different Scriptures to be authoritative. Christianity has a smaller, well- defined canon, which is closed. Furthermore, the Christian Scriptures are basically historical in nature, utterly devoid of myths and complex philosophical speculation. The New Testament was composed by Jesus’ immediate disciples or their associates, unlike the accounts of Buddha, which were only written down hundreds of years after his death. Whereas the vast body of Buddhist sacred writings contains books which are both filled with myths and mutually contradictory, the Bible is self-consistent as well as history accurate.

Christians believe, of course, in a single Creator God, utterly unlike the atheism of original Buddhism or the polytheism of popular Chinese religion. He is the fundamental Source, Goal, and Life of the universes. Our purpose is to know, love, serve, and worship him.

Far from being illusory, creation – including the individual soul - is considered both real and good in the Bible. Our moral problem and mental suffering results from “total depravity. The root of our troubles is not ignorance, but a willful turning away from God and his will that affects every department of the human personality.

For that reason, Christians believe that we all need a divine-human Savior, one who can reconcile God and men because he fully partakes of both natures. Because of our moral degradation, we stand under God’s wrath; no amount of self-cultivation can make us good enough to deserve entrance into God’s presence. Thus, we need a propitiating sacrifice.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is not just a great teacher, or even a godlike bodhisattva, but the unique divine Son of God and son of Mary, who entered into history, lived, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. Faith in him will bring a righteous standing before God, which qualifies us to draw near to God as beloved children of a heavenly Father. We do not claim any merit, but wholly rely on the merit of Christ on our behalf. Salvation is by faith, not works.

This faith results in regeneration, not repeated reincarnation. It is a once-for-all experience in this life, which gives us a new heart that can begin to obey God by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Again – Christians do not rely on self-effort to overcome sin.

Good works are, of course, required of all believers, but they are the fruit of the Holy Spirit, who works in us as we call in faith upon God to change us. Christianity, unlike traditional Buddhism, is a “worldly,” or “world-transforming,” faith. Especially in its Protestant form, Christianity urges all believers to be “salt and light” in this world, and not to flee from it into a monastery.

All those who trust in Christ become members of the church, which is the Body of Christ; this is their new and true family, and is an international fellowship.

Rather than hoping either for rebirth into a vague Western Paradise, or the melting of the soul into the World Soul in Nirvana, Christians hold to the promise of the return of Christ, which will end history and usher in a new heaven and new earth.

For these and other reasons, Christians try to avoid unnecessary mental pain, and respond to suffering when it does come, not by denial of desire but by the cultivation of proper desires and renunciation of sinful ones. They do not seek to kill all longings, but to direct them towards God.

Conclusion

The many apparent similarities between Buddhism and Christianity offer useful points of departure for conversations that reflect genuine respect but also move towards greater clarity. Though they do not have to make unnecessary concessions to Buddhism in the process, Christians may move from these points of contact to a presentation of their faith that answers the longings, and even some of the God-given insights, of their Buddhist friends.

Resources

  • Lit-sen Chang, Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism
  • G. Wright Doyle & Peter Yu, China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society
  • Mario Poceski, Introducing Chinese Religions

G. Wright Doyle