Some say if you compare the Sermon on the Mount, Buddha’s Dhammapada, Lao-tzu’s Tao-te-ching, Confucius’ Analects, the Bhagavad Gita, the Proverbs of Solomon, and the Dialogues of Plato, you will find it: a real, profound, and strong agreement. Yes, but this is ethics, not religion. . . . Ethics may be the first step in religion but it is not the last. As C.S. Lewis says, “The road to the Promised Land runs past Mount Sinai.”—Peter Kreeft1
About six centuries before Jesus walked the earth, a young Hindu prince is said to have escaped the trappings of materialism and found the path to enlightenment. Now known as the Buddha—the enlightened one—he left behind a formula to help others trace the same nirvanic path. These teachings have been distilled in the belief system known as Buddhism, a humanistic and essentially monistic religion.2 As one of history’s oldest surviving global religions,3 it is one of today’s fastest growing faiths, and currently boasts almost half a billion adherents worldwide. This makes it one of the largest blocks of people groups unreached with the gospel.
In countries like Thailand, Tibet, Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, over 60 percent of the populace could be described as “folk Buddhists.” Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist, with Myanmar and Cambodia about 90 percent. But Buddhism is not just for the Far East anymore, as the United States has become a prime mission field for Buddhism, gradually achieving mainstream acceptance. “Probably the most attractive of all the non-Christian religions to the Western mind,”4 notes J.N.D. Anderson, America now has two million homegrown Buddhists. Though it took millennia for Buddhism to be established in Asia, it has taken deep root in Western countries in a fraction of that time—perhaps due to compatibility with the naturalistic evolutionary worldview that now permeates the Western World.
If Gautama Buddha or his earliest disciples ever wrote down his teachings, such has perished, meaning no one has been able to claim with high confidence exactly what he taught. In fact, written records about Siddhartha don’t appear until at least four hundred years after his death. Before this we have only scattered Sanskrit accounts and oral tradition. Thus a pale of historical uncertainty has resulted, with Buddhist scholars even conceding that falsehoods have leached into most biographical accounts about the Buddha, not to mention outlandish embellishments. For example, one account says that within seconds of birth, he stood, walked, and scanned in all directions before nobly claiming that he was the foremost being in the world, and that this would be his last rebirth. During his quest for enlightenment he is said to have survived on one grain of rice daily for a few years. The last two years before his “awakening,” he completely abstained from food or water.5
Roughly 2,500 years ago in Kapilavastu at the foothills of the Himalayas, a young aristocrat named Siddhartha Gautama was born in the lap of luxury. His father carefully insulated his heir from the real world beyond the palace walls, and allegedly gave him three palaces and 40,000 dancing girls.6 However, Siddhartha inadvertently caught glimpses here and there beyond the royal walls. The following sights in particular gripped Gautama’s heart: 1) a crippled man, 2) a leper, 3) a rotting corpse, and 4) a pious ascetic. These later came to be known as the Four Passing Sights, which so moved him that he renounced his life of comfort and luxury to pursue enlightenment. This Great Renunciation, as Buddhists call it, included Gautama abandoning his wife and child, for “distractions”7 such as these would impede his quest to untie the Gordian knot of pain, sickness, old age, and death. The driving motivation of Buddhism’s founder was to pinpoint the origin of pain and suffering and to propose a solution.8
As with many Hindus (the culture and worldview he was born into), Gautama found the standard Indian theodicy9 for pain and death to be dreadful and deeply unsatisfying. Legend has it that six or seven years after his Great Renunciation, his long search paid off. Tranquilly seated in the lotus position under a fig tree (later commemorated as the Bodhi tree10), Gautama meditated for a long time.11 Freed from distractions, he persevered, he was able to recall his previous lives and learn the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. The rubrics of Buddhist dharma were then revealed to him, and he attained ultimate bliss,12 becoming the enlightened one—hereafter simply the Buddha.
In the wake of attaining nirvana, the Buddha began traveling itinerantly with five companions, sharing with them the insights learned under the tree of wisdom. His first teaching was the Sermon at Benares, which included The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. These two groups of dharma, if followed while navigating The Middle Way, will guide imperfect aspirants to escape from the cycle of reincarnation and attain enlightenment.13 The Buddha did retain some of his former Hinduism, but added nuance to reincarnation and a few other precepts. In fact, he simply hoped to be a force of reform within Hinduism.
An Answer to Suffering: Buddha’s Main Quest
Ever since the Four Passing Sights, Gautama’s Great Renunciation was fueled by a hunger to find an answer for the pain and suffering in life. When it came to solving the problem of evil, the Buddha took a very different path from Hinduism. The latter saw evil as maya (illusion), while the Buddha taught that evil is not only real, but that it can be overcome by methodically removing desire—the source of all suffering.14 Eliminate this craving and you eliminate suffering. Such gives birth to the stereotypical view Westerners have of monks seated yoga-like and seeking complete detachment from the world. Through discipline and patient determination all passions can be “blown out.”
For the last 45 years of his life, the Buddha pointed encumbered seekers toward the way of liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The timing could not have been better, as his method came in a period when there was a huge discontent with the drudgery and vagaries of Hinduism. The Buddha’s teachings seemed logical, elegant, and appealing—especially with the suffering class—and so his views progressively gained traction. For the next few centuries Buddhism spread widely in East Asia, across China, and over to Japan and Korea. The desire for some viable, but god-free, answer to the problem of pain and suffering, partially explains why many moderns adopt the Buddhist path.
For all the superficial similarities some may propose between classical expressions of both Buddhism and Christianity, when it comes to theodicy any notion of a concord implodes immediately. For most of the time prior to the advent of Charles Lyell’s uniformitarianism, traditional Christianity applied a normative reading to the opening chapters of Genesis; i.e., tending toward accepting the creation and Flood narratives at face value. This meant that Christianity’s dominant theodicy for its first 18 centuries was that it was the original disobedience of a historical Adam and Eve that ushered in both moral and natural evils. When our imago dei, was fractured, perfect communion with God was lost, and all sufferings and relational dysfunctionalities flowed from this breach. E.L. Mascall succinctly explains:
It was until recent years almost universally held that all the evils, both moral and physical, which afflict this earth are in some way or another derived from the first act by which a bodily creature endowed with reason deliberately set itself against what it knew to be the will of God.15
It is perhaps not surprising that evolutionary thinking finds greater unity with Buddhism in particular and Eastern thought in general, but exploring this is beyond the scope of this present chapter.
Entering Zen is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass. One finds oneself in a topsy-turvy wonderland where everything seems quite mad—charmingly mad for the most part, but mad all the same. It is a world of bewildering dialogues, obscure conundrums, stunning paradoxes, flagrant contradictions, and abrupt non sequiturs, all carried off in the most urbane, cheerful, and innocent style imaginable.—Huston Smith16
Through two and a half shaky millennia, Buddha’s philosophy has not only survived but it has flourished.17 And although it is the majority or state religion in a dozen countries, it has remained anything but monochromatic in the 21st century. Variant forms and sects abound, with at least 238 distinct ethnolinguistic Buddhist people groups.18 Theravada (or Hinayana) and Mahayana are the two major sects of Buddhism and are actually quite different from one another.
Theravada (The Teaching of the Elders), about 38 percent of all Buddhists, has remained the school truest to original Buddhism, and is more conservative. It tends to be more dominant in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, and Tibet. It is also called Southern Buddhism and holds that only monks can reach nirvana. This school is deeply monastic, seeing meditation as the main key to “salvation” and quite inwardly focused.
Mahayana (The Greater Vehicle) is more popular at 56 percent, and more liberal than Theravada, and dominates in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Thailand. It is also called Northern Buddhism, and contends that even the laity can reach enlightenment. Meditation is vital for this school, but puts more emphasis on selflessness and altruism (i.e., helping others in order to help yourself ) to attain salvation (in their belief system); and thus is more outwardly focused than Theravada Buddhism. Additionally, about 700 years after Buddha died, this school had a tendency to see him as a divine. They also have many tantric and occult-like practices.
Other Buddhist Sects
The Vajrayana school (The Diamond Vehicle, aka Lamaism or Tantra) is a third, much smaller group at 6 percent, and prevalent in Tibet. It would hardly bear mention were it not for its most famous representative, the exiled Dalai Lama. But all factions of Buddhism can be traced back to this triad of the Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana schools. While each has distinctive dogma, all embrace what we will call “mere Buddhism.”
Other variants bear brief mention. Zen Buddhism is a spinoff of Mahayana Buddhism, concentrated in Japan. Generally, Zen is a non-doctrinaire road to transcendence, is extremely esoteric, and believes enlightenment is attained by chanting rote phrases, names, or texts. It is not preoccupied with logic and is the most philosophical school. Zen is characterized by an emphasis on detachment from one’s desires, seeking to attain extinction (parinirvana), with the distinct nuance of experiencing satori (the sudden awareness of one’s absolute Buddha nature, accompanied by inner joy and harmony).
Pure Land Buddhism (aka Amidism) splintered off of the Mahayana school as well. Pure Landers regard the personality Amitabha Buddha as a savior through whose merits one can achieve nirvana. Pure Land targets the layperson. Engaging in something as simple as a mechanistic chanting of “Praise to Amitabha Buddha” (the nembutsu) can clear the way to be reborn in the paradise called Pure Land. This is a mythical place “created” by Amitabha where pursuing enlightenment takes less effort.
Last, Nichiren Buddhists are very mystical and stress that they represent true Buddhism. This school is enticing because of its emphasis on materialism, basically being an Eastern expression of prosperity theology—a view thoroughly at odds with the Buddha. Devotees follow scriptures like The Lotus Sutra and teach that by chanting before the Gohonzon (a scroll or box with the names of key religious figures in the Lotus Sutra), one can bring his life into balance, achieving health and wealth. This sect is also unique in that it seeks to refute other schools and proselytize.
The above distinctions in the Buddhist family tree are crucial for apologists hoping to penetrate hearts from each offshoot. But with so many schisms—and the blurring within each—classification will remain exceedingly difficult.19 Try to imagine, for example, being invited to chart the common Christian ground of a Pentecostal in the Appalachians, with those of a Filipino Roman Catholic, or a Nigerian Seventh-day Adventist. Since an equally wide swath exists with Gautama’s heritors today, we must join leading missiologists and think more in terms of Buddhisms on a vast spectrum. Our evangelistic tack with a saffron-robed Buddhist in Qinghai will be quite different than that Buddhist in the pew in Ulaanbaatar. Zen Buddhism in Japan and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet “feel” similar, but look very different. And a Nepali villager may never have been taught Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, but if you showed them to her she’d likely say she shares such convictions.
East Is East, and West Is West, and Never the Twain Shall Meet?
Contra Kipling’s poem, through Buddhism the twain have met indeed. And in America it is the list of high-profile converts that has given it some major street cred.20 Sports personalities like Tiger Woods, David Beckham, and Phil Jackson (former NBA coach) have turned their hearts East, as have Jerry Brown (governor of California) and luminaries like the late Steve Jobs and Rosa Parks. While not a convert, Bill Clinton has adopted a vegan diet and hired a Buddhist monk to tutor him on proper meditation technique. And the Dalai Lama, the figurehead of an oppressed people group, is treated like a rock star in America, having been invited to the White House, the UN, and wining and dining with the cultural elite.
Los Angeles has been called the most diverse Buddhist city in the world. Complementing this is a list of Hollywood elites who have embraced Buddhist principles, including Richard Gere,21 Keanu Reeves, Tina Turner, and Harrison Ford.22 Iconic director George Lucas was very transparent that his agenda for the Star Wars series was to introduce Buddhism to the West.23 The Force symbolizes the impersonal energy of Eastern mysticism.24
Authors like Thomas Merton, D.Z. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and popular movies like Seven Years in Tibet, The Little Buddha, and What’s Love Got to Do with It? have all contributed to the romanticizing, allure, and mainstreaming of Buddhist-type thinking. Even TV, movies, and music have been adopting subtle Buddhist elements, like the TV series Lost (think Dharma initiative), Point Break (with Bodhi—a lead character) and the band Nirvana.
A full assessment of the Buddhistic worldview’s popularity is beyond the scope of this chapter, but a few suggestions for its appeal can be posited. Becoming disillusioned with one’s own religious background, Western culture in general, or the rat race of American society, have all contributed to hearts turning East.
Buddhism’s rubrics of tolerance, wisdom, compassion, lovingkindness, nonviolence, and personal transformation have also no doubt enticed spiritually awakened and hungry souls. With so many varieties to choose from, Buddhism has enough flavors to accommodate the palates of any individual, even the raging atheist. Consider further that in our sensate world of chaos, materialism, and the erotic, Buddhism’s combo of inner tranquility, enlightenment, and easy-believism are an irresistible escape hatch. Our society has also accepted meditation and yoga as great stress relievers, with little regard that these have become gateway disciplines to a deeper exploration of Gautama’s path.25
Others are no doubt uncritically enamored by the idea of reincarnation, conditioned perhaps by countless wholesome portrayals in modern films.26 At a superficial level, some may think reincarnations gives them endless chances to get things right. Hollywood, academia, the media, and the social elites all too often give Buddhism a free pass from critical assessment simply because they love its non-judgmental, non-theistic, and non-violent emphases. In addition to appearing hyper-tolerant, Buddhism offers a guilt-free ethical framework with no external god to whom we are accountable. Such is not too far from the flaccid convictions of liberal Christianity—a view paying lip service to a wrath-free deity, whose ecumenical arc has no room for sin, a Christ on a Cross, the exclusive truth claims of a risen Savior, or any suggestion of a final and lasting judgment.27
Does Buddhism Have Its Own Scripture?
Islam has the Qur’an, Christianity has the Bible, but Buddhism has no absolute canonical authority binding on all its splinter groups. That being stated, a key textual authority providing some uniformity for most Buddhists is found in the Pali Canon—a collection of writings 11 times larger than the Christian Scriptures! The Pali Canon is divided into three parts—each called pitaka or “basket”—and thus has come to be known as the Tripitaka.
|Tripitaka, or Pali Canon|
|Vinaya Pitaka:||(Basket of Order)||Code of monastic discipline for the community of monks|
|Sutra Pitaka:||(Basket of Discourses)||Conventional teachings believed to have come straight from Gautama Buddha or his closest followers|
|Abhidhamma Pitaka:||(Basket of Higher Teachings)||Texts in which the Sutta teachings are arranged to help in the study of the nature of mind and matter|
Opinions vary within Buddhism regarding the authority of these writings.
Some claim the whole Pali Canon is binding. Others contend that no “basket” can relay rationally warranted beliefs, so the Buddhist canon carries no binding authority. Additional thinkers hold that the enlightened Gautama provided reliable knowledge through his lectures, but no Buddhist texts are authoritative.28
While there is no god in Buddhism, the thoughts and teachings of the Buddha (written centuries after his death) are generally taken as an underlying authority to guide Buddhists. But really, at base, a traditional Buddhist takes himself as an authority, as he must work out his own salvation. The Buddhist ordo salutis is very self-oriented.29 Regardless, the authorities listed here are man. Man is ultimately seen as the absolute authority on Buddhist teachings. This is actually arbitrary, creating a system that allows all things to be true while nothing is true—a state that cannot logically sustain its own weight.
Last, while Buddha’s image is often worshiped by some of his followers around the globe, he never considered himself a god or even a revelation from a god. He never even intended to start a new religion, but originally hoped to be a force for reform within Hinduism.
Two major misconceptions linger in the West. The first is that Buddha is the name of a god. But Buddha is just a title that means “enlightened/awakened one” or “teacher.” Anyone who has grasped the nature of ultimate reality or has been enlightened is a Buddha, and thus, in Buddhism, there are many Buddhas. The second erroneous view is thinking that the corpulent, laughing figurine popular in many Chinese restaurants is the Gautama Buddha of history. But this is actually Budai, a tenth-century quirky Chinese Zen monk, who carried a stick with a bag on it. The Buddha fasted regularly and walked thousands of miles, so a chubby Buddha statue is about as plausible as a chubby Jesus.
Foundations and Beliefs
There are several common beliefs that all Buddhists embrace. Front and center are the “Three Jewels” in which all Buddhists find refuge, reassurance, and dignity. They are the Buddha (the yellow jewel), the teachings (the blue jewel, or dharma), and the monastic order (the red jewel, or sangha). One can hear these three gems in the following popular mantra that Buddhist monks chant through the day:
Buddham Saranam Gachchami [I take shelter in Buddha]
Dhammam Saranam Gachchami [I take shelter in dharma]
Samgham Saranam Gachchami [I take shelter in community with monks]
Then we have The Four Noble Truths, which essentially retraces Gautama Buddha’s own road toward enlightenment. They are as follows:
- Dukkha, or suffering, is an inescapable plight of existence
- Samudaya (or craving) causes dukkha, and grates against all reality
- Nirodha (cease) is the key to overcoming dukkha
- Marga, cessation of suffering comes by following The Eightfold Path
This Eightfold Path is key to the cessation of suffering and is congruent with one’s move toward enlightenment. The eight steps are:
|Training in Wisdom (Prajan)||Right views—believe The Four Noble Truths, rejecting all false views|
|Right intention—improper thoughts must be purged|
|Training in Morality (Shila)||Right speech—truthful, clear, non-harmful communication|
|Right action—live non-exploitatively and properly toward others|
|Right livelihood—live simply|
|Training in Concentration (Samadhi)||Right effort—work toward detachment from the world|
|Right mind—understand the nature of oneself and reality|
|Right meditation—dispel all distractions, total focus on enlightenment|
One cannot help but ask who defines “right.” If it is just a man, like a monk, Buddha, or anyone else, why presume that they have all knowledge to know the true nature of reality? To know absolute right, one must have absolute knowledge, which no man has. The only one in a position of knowing absolute right (and absolute wrong) is an all-knowing God, not a man. Yet Buddhism has no all-knowing God nor a revelation to man. When men merely have the opinion that something is right or wrong, then it is merely an opinion, a form of arbitrariness.
Several Buddhist tenets are familiar, at least in name, to non-Buddhists in the West. These include karma, reincarnation, the transmigration of the soul, nirvana, and dependent organization.
- Good or bad karma dictates everything. Depending on the virtue or depravity of one’s actions in prior lives, such determines how one will be manifested in the next life. You literally will sow what you reap. What we are now is a direct effect of actions from a previous incarnation, which in turn are based on the previous lives ad infinitum. While Hindus held that one can’t break free from this cycle, Buddha iconoclastically claimed not only that one could break free, but also that this escape was available to all castes.
- In the Buddhist view, reincarnation normally refers to the endless cycle of birth, life, death, rebirth, and redeath that all must experience on their journey toward enlightenment. The Buddha denied that individual souls come back in other forms, so Buddhism typically rejects the theory of a transmigrating permanent soul.30
- Transmigration of the soul refers to the passage of the soul from one body to the next in successive incarnations. In Buddhism one doesn’t die, but just keeps coming back again and again until enlightenment is achieved. The Mahayana sect embraces the concept of an individual soul, so rebirth is also seen as transmigration. In contrast, however, the Theravada school rejects the idea of the transmigration of the soul (i.e., self, person, or enduring mind) from a prior life.31
- Nirvana has different nuances among Buddhists, but there is agreement that at nirvana the fires of greed, hatred, ignorance, delusion, and attachment are snuffed out. For some, nirvana denotes a state of absolute bliss, while for others it is the ultimate liberation where the soul—like a candle’s flame—is completely extinguished.32
- Dependent Organization is the Buddhist metaphysical idea that all things arise together as an interdependent whole. Given our ever-changing, impermanent, essenceless cosmos, this arbitrary “law” accounts for the order and consistency we “observe.”33
View on Origins
As noted above under the umbrella of Buddhism, while the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana strands share common ground, they also have doctrinal convictions that totally clash with each other. This holds true for a Buddhist perspective on origins, which is anything but lock step. Yet even allowing for variations, a few precepts remain uniform across their spectrum. Since Buddhism holds that there is no god, no schools can accommodate a supreme creator.
Given Gautama Buddha’s opposition to key features of India’s Brahmanism, its not surprising that he never was even remotely concerned with accounting for the order in our world34 or any notion of a first cause. For us to be concerned with the origins of the cosmos (or other “unconjecturables”) is a distraction, as Buddha attempted to demonstrate in his famous parable of the poisoned arrow. Picture a man, he asks, shot with a poison arrow. He could alleviate his suffering by simply removing the arrow. But would it not be odd if the wounded refused to have the arrow removed until a number of queries were answered first, questions like the archer’s identity, details of the bowperson’s family tree, and plotting the arrow’s trajectory, aerodynamic integrity, color, weight, composite material, and whether this was volitional or accidental (a hunter’s arrow intended for small game?), etc. Buddha’s point was that just as suffering would not be alleviated in the least by such conjectures, neither will cosmological contemplations do anything to address our current sufferings. Since the Buddha’s main goal was the elimination of suffering (pulling out the poison arrow), speculations on the origins of the cosmos are relegated to the dustbin of uselessness.35
Some people prefer to call Buddhism a way of life and thought. In Asia, “Buddhism” is often [seen] as an alien term, because to them it merely refers to reality. Because the Buddha wouldn’t deal with certain questions basic to metaphysics, there are reasons why his path isn’t considered a philosophy. Likewise, because he never resolved questions about God or gods or an afterlife, his teachings aren’t precisely a religion. And since it teaches that self is an illusory construct, it can be tricky to categorize it exactly as a psychology.—Gary Gach36
Since the Buddha is not known to have ever speculated on human origins, it is warranted to infer that he didn’t see such as basic to proper spirituality. This is not surprising because his opinion was that most theological issues were unedifying and unworthy of reflection. Paradoxically enough, for one whose majority platform was built on illusion, it is ironic that the idea of discussing origins involved too much metaphysical speculation for the Buddha.
Thus, on the Buddhist view there is no other option except to believe the universe arose through random and impersonal natural laws. Further, the Buddhist quest to raise cosmic consciousness has even been called spiritual evolution, a mantle the New Age movement has been all too happy to pick up.
We generally find crude evolution-like (Chain of Being) underpinnings in all major Asian worldviews. This is true of Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism. But the Buddhistic cosmogony is unlike other major non-Christian religions in that it has no creation myth.37 Wayne House distills the Buddhist creational view as follows.
Buddhism does not refer to the creation of the universe. Instead it refers to everything in the universe as “reality,” with all phenomena of the world originating interdependently. Reality is characterized by impermanence,38 insofar as everything eventually perishes. Reality is understood in terms of processes and relations rather than entities or substances. Human experience is analyzed in five aggregates (skandhas). Form (rupa) denotes material existence. The other four refer to psychological processes: sensations (vedana) perceptions (samjna), mental constructs (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana). The causal conditions for such human experience are found in a 12-membered chain of dependent organization (pratitya-samatpada). The links in the chain are ignorance, karmic predisposition, consciousness, name-form, the senses, contact, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, old age, and death.39
A Buddhist believes the cosmos is fragmentary and impermanent, and that in a sense, he continually creates and recreates his world through karma. We can clearly see that the Buddhist idea of origins is multi-layered, not prone to falsification, and thus has precious little to bring to the empirical table in the contemporary discussion on origins.
View of the Afterlife
All Buddhists believe if they follow the Eightfold Path they can achieve liberation from the hamster-wheel of birth, death, and reincarnation. The great yearning is release from this world of maya (illusion), detachment from craving, and that perfect state bliss (nirvana), where pain and suffering are no more (cf. Revelation 21:4). Nirvana is the final state of nothingness for Buddhists. They don’t hold to any type or heaven or believe in any type of eternity whatsoever. In other words, their goal is a form of final death with vain hopes that there is nothing beyond this death.
The idea of hell is also foreign for most of Buddhism, but is allowed for in certain strains of their worldview. I grew up in Asia, and vividly remember as a boy seeing murals on the wall of a Buddhist temple—grotesque frescos of the horrors that awaited some Buddhists.40 Like Dante’s Inferno, the images stuck to the canvas of my mind for years, and I’ve seen similar gruesome vignettes in my nearly 40 trips to China. Those depictions capture the fate for truly wicked souls. The silver lining for these Buddhists is that there’s a purgatory-like limit to this purging, meaning one will eventually be “freed” to return to the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation on the path toward nirvana.
Consider the psychological effect of such fatalistic indoctrination. If one’s whole existence is determined and the benefits of our current actions are not realized until some successive stage, hopelessness seems assured. Something of this despair can perhaps be seen empirically. Buddhist-dominant countries tend to have very high suicide rates. In fact, J. Warner Wallace has noted that the “the top twenty most suicidal countries are almost all countries with strong Buddhist or Communist (atheist) histories.”41 In Buddhist countries, the suicide rate is about 18 in 100,000 annually. In Thailand there is a suicide every two hours, and in China there is a suicide every two minutes.
How many people have provoked this question—not “Who are you?” . . . but “What are you?” . . . Only two: Jesus and Buddha.—Huston Smith and Philip Nova42
Buddhist Perspectives on Christ
While every biblically grounded Christian holds to the divinity of Jesus, Buddhists of any variety deny that Jesus was divine. They do not deny, however, that he is a pivotal person in history. Interestingly, since Buddhists believe the Buddha had a miraculous birth, they have few quibbles with Jesus’ miraculous birth. They deeply admire his social teachings and particularly his selfless work on behalf on others, but a deity he was not. Instead, he is to be revered as a bodhisattva, who allegedly postponed nirvana for the sake of others.43 Terry Muck even points out that high-level Buddhists show far greater respect for the historical Jesus than liberal exegetes of the Jesus Seminar.”44 But even if the honor these Buddhist leaders accord Jesus as a great teacher seems genuine, fans of C.S. Lewis will wonder how these doyens might respond to the trilemma. Lewis wrote:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.45
Similarities between Buddhism and Christianity
When it comes to dovetailing Christian theism and Buddhism, there has been no shortage of thinkers like Thomas Merton (Trappist monk) and Thich Nhat Hanh (Buddhist monk)46—who are among many who have become apologists for such syncretism. And at first glance, superficial parallels between Buddhism and Christianity are abundant. For example, Buddha taught that “self ” is the most deceitful of delusions, and Christianity seems to find agreement in Paul’s writings,47 but such agreement is superficial, for self is referred to in very different ways. Buddhists have no concept of the sin nature to which Paul is pointing.
Another obvious similarity is the prospect of ultimate peace promised by both religions. But again, the Buddhist brand of peace is unlike Christianity because it is “works-based,” where one attains peace through mere meditation. Christianity, on the contrary, contends that real peace only comes through being made new creations in accepting Jesus, the Prince of Peace, as Savior.
Many suggest that Jesus and the Buddha wore comparable halos, and few would disagree that the similarity between their lives is indeed interesting. Consider that each was a monastic leader who . . .
- didn’t seek personal power
- taught through parables
- didn’t leave any personal writings behind48
- established an all-encompassing way of life
- condemned prevailing religious and social norms of the day
- experienced huge opposition from local authorities
- stressed living simple, righteous, and compassionate lives
- condoned strong moral conduct (e.g., prohibitions against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct,49 lying, and a litany of abuses)
- taught that materialism interferes with spiritual growth
- urged adherents to strive toward perfection
- encouraged community and altruism in his followers
- emphasized a love and respect for all people
Yet, as interesting as these parallels are, the fundamental and irreconcilable contrasts between the two faith systems are quite stark, as highlighted in the following table.
|Some Incongruities Between Buddhism and Christianity|
|No personal God exists (atheistic)||A personal God exists (theistic)|
|No creational model||God is the creator of all that is|
|There may be a moral law, but not absolute||There is absolute moral law because God is the absolute law-giver|
|The fundamental problem is suffering||The fundamental problem is sin, which is responsible for suffering and finally death|
|“Sin” is ignorance of reality’s true nature||Sin is rebellion against God|
|“Redemption” comes from within||Redemption only comes through Christ|
|Key moment happened under a tree||Key moment happened on a tree|
|Buddhist teachings do not depend on Buddha||There is no Christianity without Christ|
|Buddha died and was cremated||Jesus died and rose incorruptible|
|Personhood hinders liberation||Personhood is central*|
|The ultimate goal is nirvana||The ultimate goal is a personal relationship and reconciliation with God|
|Completely subjective||Grounded in objective reality|
|An inward focus prevented development of science||A love and study of creation gave rise to science|
|Followers should resist critical analysis||Followers are instructed to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21–22)|
|Piety is inwardly focused||True piety looks beyond self|
|We die perhaps tens of thousands of times||We die just once (Hebrews 9:27)|
|Merit accrues over thousands of lives||Salvation by faith through God’s grace alone|
|Ultimate reality is sunyata (emptiness)||Ultimate reality is fullness in Christ|
|Cyclical view of life and history||Linear (telic) view of life and history|
|Followers must empty themselves of desire||Followers can overcome unholy desires; Jesus fulfills our desire|
|Buddha: “Be ye lamps unto yourselves”||Jesus: “I am the light of the world”|
|The soul does not exist||The soul does exist|
|There is no afterlife||There is an afterlife|
|* So much could be added here. For example, Buddhism sees enduring personhood as an illusion, with nirvana annihilating personhood. But for Christians, we are image bearers of a three-person God, so personhood is essential to Trinitarian thought, and our person endures beyond the grave — being made in the image of an eternal God. The individual (person) is often underemphasized or completely ignored in most Asian traditions. When personhood is ignored, a preoccupation with caste, family, or society rushes to fill the vacuum.|
No additional antidote is needed to vanquish futile attempts by creative inclusivists who propose a compatibility between the Buddhist and Christian traditions. The core teachings are hopelessly irreconcilable, and yet the “politically correct tractor beam” of modern pluralism and “forced neutrality” is relentless. Many in the Christian church have gone along for fear of being labeled Buddhaphobic, or similar epithets.
In fact, the motivation behind the production of the volume you are now holding will be judged by many as bigoted and intolerant. It is not because of material presented here (which is written in an honest fashion), but because of intolerant and bigoted positions of those projecting their intolerant and bigoted position toward Christianity. But such is the risk of lovingly and thoroughly assessing the truth claims and congruity of Christianity’s contemporary rivals to which we are called (2 Corinthians 10:4–5; 1 Peter 3:15, etc.). The perspicuity of John 14:6 does not cease to exist just because it is ignored—Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Ecumenical bartering to dissolve the sharp distinctions listed above can only be done at the high price of abandoning true truth. Additionally, to trivialize the vast chasm between the teachings of the Buddha and those of Jesus is to do a great injustice to the intent of both men. Any promise of a pluralistic potluck reveals a substantial ignorance of both systems as classically understood and of the milieus in which they were birthed.
For most of Asia the rhythm has hardened into a recurrence.
It is no longer merely a rather topsy-turvy sort of world; it is a wheel. . . . [Asia has] been caught up in a sort of cosmic rotation, of which the hollow hub is really nothing. In that sense the worst part of existence is that it may just as well go on like that forever.—G.K. Chesterton50
Arbitrariness and Inconsistencies within Buddhism
Buddhism resembles more of a mystical construct than a tightly formed philosophy with a healthy respect for logic and empirical data. Gautama Buddha himself saw theological reflection as mere speculation, unedifying, and not conducive to attaining spiritual liberation. It is nothing short of painful irony that his view itself would be hard to exceed in its metaphysically conjectural scope.
Christianity of course is also a faith. But it is a faith that is said to rest on historical events. In fact, given the centrality of the Christ’s Resurrection, it can truly be said that the Christian faith stands or falls on a single historical event that is claimed to have taken place in space and time (1 Corinthians 15:12–19). In strong contrast, traditional Buddhists place little to no emphasis on objective data. Ultimate reality is indescribable, indefinable, unknowable, deep things that can only be met with “noble silence.”
“If one cannot empirically know the minds of other people, then pursuing knowledge of other minds is inconsistent with the Buddha’s doctrine regarding the kind of knowledge necessary to end suffering. . . . Is not compassion then inconsistent with the kind of knowing that leads one to be able to end one’s suffering?” A head monk answered, “If someone truly understands the Buddha’s teaching, they will see that compassion is meaningless.” Collender comments, “If metaphysical claims are that which we cannot possibly verify, then the Buddha cannot verify . . . that there are any individuals beyond himself. This makes the Buddha’s epistemology an enemy of compassion.”—Michael Collender51
Those who give credence to things like the law of non-contradiction may find encounters with Buddhists quite frustrating. Reasoned arguments and logic will not typically fall on fertile soil, as Tripitaka faithful Buddhists seem relegated to mere subjectivism and experientialism at every turn.
But picture a monk looking both ways before crossing a busy Bangkok street to beg for alms; the incongruity of how his meta-rational convictions fits with (1) avoiding being run over, and (2) dependence on others, is perhaps not even realized much less explained. To the average Westerner such irreconcilable contradictions seem pervasive throughout Buddhist dharma. Non-Buddhists, for example, might note the following conundrums:
- Since souls are impermanent—i.e., there is no real self—how can Buddhism refer to nirvana as achieved or experienced?
- When Buddhism teaches reincarnation, but also denies that souls exist, what then is reincarnated? With no self to be reborn, how can cycles of rebirth occur?
- If all things are impermanent, does not that very conviction implode?52
- Karma entails that past acts and future incidents are inseparably linked together (i.e., we truly reap in this life what we’ve sown in a previous one). But how can this be if nothing is permanent?
- The Buddhist’s whole worldview is predicated on overcoming suffering, but how can this be if (some of the same) Buddhists deny that suffering is real?
- Buddhism infers one has no personal significance. But then why do some Buddhists seem to live as if they do have some modicum of significance?
- How can Buddhism claim that suffering comes from the pursuit of private fulfillment, and then pursue (desire) a private fulfillment like nirvana?
- As part of our world of sensory illusion, how are ethical notions (like good and evil or cruelty and non-cruelty) even sustainable?53 Specifically, what objective moral basis can Buddhism provide to distinguish between them?
- It is commendable that Buddhists live ethically. But by holding that ultimate reality is impersonal—with distinctions between good and evil being illusory—isn’t such an ethic wholly arbitrary with no objective underpinning?54
- With no personal God, who/what decides whether an act deserves “good” or “bad” karma?
- How is it even known that the search for enlightenment is worthy?
- If self-effort is imperative to curry good karma, how does this mesh with the aid of a bodhisattva?
The list could go on, but one last glaring fallacy bears mention. Buddhism advocates selflessness and liberation from craving. And yet the whole goal of attaining nirvana ironically appears to be the ultimate form of selfishness, since it is a completely self-centered experience. Johnson summarizes the contradiction clearly.
The moral contradiction is precisely this: A person should want to get saved from desire or selfishness. But wanting to save oneself is just as selfish as any other act for selfish ends. If a person wants enlightenment, he still wants. And wanting, desiring, is the very fault which [sic] prevents enlightenment.55
Illogical thinking, of course, is not the exclusive domain of Buddhists, as such manifests itself at some level with all views opposing biblical truth. Nor is it implied that those who pride themselves in logic are automatically superior or logical, much less correct. But with Buddhism (and Taoism also) contradiction actually seems essential to the system, and thus is not only tolerable but even somewhat of a badge of honor. All this comes as no surprise; being the logical outcome of a worldview that teaches that reality is just an illusion. Since any “rules of reasoning,” whatever they may be for each individual, are part of a reality that is illusory, then such rigid laws cannot exist, much less be codified in an ethereal worldview.
Even among the Zen masters themselves there is a great deal of discrepancy, which is quite disconcerting. What one asserts another flatly denies or makes a sarcastic remark about it, so that the uninitiated are at a loss what to make out of all these everlasting and hopeless entanglements.—D.T. Suzuki56
Intra-faith dialogues with diehard Buddhists will have no shared appreciation of the logical and linear reasoning that Westerners take for granted. In fact, it will be extremely difficult to fathom why Buddhists themselves fail to see logical contradictions within their framework, their holy books,57 their practice, or why the law of non-contradiction is not taken as a universal truism. Greg Bahnsen suggests that if someone denies the law of non-contradiction, you could just respond, “Oh, so you don’t deny it.” When they counter with, “No, I do deny it,” then you can simply respond, “Yes, but if you deny it, then you also don’t deny it.” Since they have given up the law of non-contradiction, then they can’t appeal to that law when you contradict their position. The force of Bahnsen’s words is hard to escape.
Tips for Sharing the Gospel with Buddhists
Having been introduced to mere Buddhism, you can see that this religion is every bit as diverse as Christianity (this happens when a religion has been around for a long time), and as such, just about every assertion and assessment in this chapter could be endlessly qualified. The same holds true for strategies in sharing Christ with Buddhists. There is no cookie-cutter approach. What may have been fruitful for the T’ang dynasty Nestorians will prove sterile 1,300 years later in Marin County.
We all know how daunting it can be to share Christ with family and friends, but getting to Calvary with Buddhists can be even more overwhelming, especially when tacking on cultural and language barriers. Yet be encouraged, as God has helped many just like you to handle these hurdles. A powerful and proven mix involves three things: a little preparation, courageously stepping out in faith, and knowing that God is with you! You will learn, grow, and gain confidence with each encounter. Additionally, previous evangelism by others has plowed the way for you, just as you may be tilling the ground for others or watering what they planted (1 Corinthians 3:5–8). Centuries of prayer cover precedes you too.
Some have long ministered in the Buddhist world. When they share methods that have proved fruitful, and others that have flopped, we should listen. The following common sense suggestions can be adapted according to context.
- This is spiritual warfare, so start with prayer! The Holy Spirit has long tilled the soil in Buddhist hearts, and will continue to do so.
- The demonic is often in play. Do not tread flippantly onto the battlefield.
- Be pre-emptive (1 Peter 3:15). Research Buddhism. Truly understanding a Buddhist’s faith is key and shows respect. Familiarity with things like The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, and The Middle Way is imperative. If you get pressed into a discussion, do not be afraid to ask questions about what the Buddhist believes so that you can properly discuss the issues.
- Similarly, have you delved into a personal study of theodicy (the existence of suffering, especially in the creation of an omnipotent and holy God)? Indications that you’ve reflected deeply on pain and suffering will send a positive signal. We must be as serious about our beliefs as Buddhists are about theirs.
- You must learn to distinguish original Buddhism from modern variants, in addition to determining which school of Buddhism your friend embraces. When in a discussion, do not be afraid to ask respectful probing questions.
- Buckle in for the long haul. There really are no shortcuts to the time it takes to earn trust and the right to speak truth to the Buddhist.
- Building relational bridges is essential. Do whatever it takes to understand their personal world, listen, and answer questions.
- Dialogical approach is best—listen very well. Residual aggressiveness or condescension must give way to gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15). Being overly confrontational is a killer in general, but more so in an Asian context. Become familiar with and avoid tactics that cause one to “lose face.”
- Speaking the truth in love is essential in witnessing to Buddhists, respectfully and patiently highlighting essential differences.
- Timing is crucial. Ask God when it’s right to advance—and when it’s best to pull back. Premature attempts to draw the net can be counter-effective if proper foundations aren’t in place.
- Christians committed to their own spiritual disciplines have better rapport with Buddhists. But casual Christians who don’t know their sources, or who don’t pray, fast, etc., don’t foster the same sense of credibility with Buddhists.
- Drawn-out diatribes of comparative religion have rarely worked. Aside from Christ, don’t focus on the Buddha or other personalities. Concentrate on issues.
- Share Christ winsomely and patiently. Buddhists usually know little about Jesus, so while an overview of His uniqueness may take time, it is non-negotiable.
- Make no assumptions and patiently clarify key terms. Buddhists are rarely conversant with biblical concepts and terms Christians take for granted. Don’t assume Buddhists understand sin, judgment, vicarious atonement, heaven, hell, or resurrection. This is doubly important because some, like the Dalai Lama, substitute terms like compassion, peace, and harmony with Tibetan words that have very different meanings.
- The concept of a relational God offering forgiveness to His image-bearers has deep appeal for Buddhists.
- The thinking Buddhist wants escape from the cycle of karma, suffering, and incessant striving for self-perfection. Sharing your personal narrative of how Christ freed you from similar bondage and what it’s like to have a personal relationship with a living God will be quite powerful.
- Be prepared to explain the differences between heaven and nirvana.
- Engaging in too much comparative religion (i.e., highlighting common ground) can be a diversion. Focus on Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
- As you would expect, nomenclature like “born again” or “regeneration” and the like can be problematic, being heard very differently by Buddhist ears. Such terms can’t be avoided, of course, but exercise extreme wisdom in explaining the differences between regeneration and reincarnation. One source wisely suggests substitute terminology like “endless freedom from suffering, guilt, and sin,” “new power for living a holy life,” “promise of eternal good life without suffering,” or the “gift of unlimited merit.”58
- Make sure to give Buddhist friends a Bible, stating your willingness to answer questions. Suggest the Gospel of Mark as a starting point.
- As you began with prayer, likewise end with prayer. In the wake of each encounter, ask God to continue to work on the heart of each future ex-Buddhist.
|Doctrine||Teachings of Buddhism|
|God||Deny the existence of the biblical God. In its pure form, Buddhism is atheistic; however, some sects revere the Buddha as a godlike figure. Other sects are polytheistic, honoring various lesser gods. All deny Jesus was divine, but many would acknowledge His miraculous birth and see Him as an enlightened teacher.|
|Authority/Revelation||The authority of the Tripitaka, or Pali Canon, while variously revered among the sects, is at least acknowledged as a source of Buddhist teachings. Other assorted writings are used by rival sects. Ultimately, each individual is his own authority.|
|Man||All life forms and men are part of a cycle of life and death whose self is seeking to achieve nirvana. Individuals are born subject to the law of karma, not with a sinful nature, based on their performance in the previous life.|
|Sin||Sin is loosely defined as doing wrong and having desires that attach one to the world. All suffering is the result of wrong desires and holding wrong thoughts and intentions. Sin is seen as the ignorance of true reality.|
|Salvation||The individual is intent upon removing all desires and attachments to the world to remove any form of suffering. Following the Eightfold Path, each person can achieve the state of nirvana, having their existence extinguished and removed from the cycle of reincarnation and suffering.|
|Creation||Deny the existence of a supreme creator. Consider questions about origins a distraction from achieving enlightenment. May embrace evolutionary ideas as a part of the chain of being.|