Christ or Buddha
What is true enlightenment?
What is Buddhism?
Buddhism at its core is a philosophy, a set of concepts that operates globally as a religion. The Buddhist philosophy incorporates ideas on ethics, identity, and social justice. Someone who identifies as a Buddhist may believe any number of things additional to the core Buddhist ideals. A Buddhist may have a belief in the supernatural or be an atheist.
Buddhism was founded around 600 BC in north eastern India (modern day Nepal). It is a Dharmic religion, meaning much like Jainism and Sikhism it has its historical roots emerging from Hinduism. Starting as a Hindu sect it eventually split entirely. To this day elements of Hinduism remain in parts of Buddhism, for example ideas of reincarnation and karma. Whilst Buddhism has concepts in common with Hinduism, it is important to recognise that it comes from dissatisfaction with Hinduism and seeks to fill the personal ideals, philosophy and goals lacking in Hinduism.
The origin story of Buddha and Buddhism
An influential ruler in northern India received a prophecy regarding his son, if the young prince stayed at home he would become a wise and just Rajah (king), however if the young boy travelled he would become the saviour of all mankind. The father, fearing the prophecy and desiring his heir to be Rajah, sheltered the boy from all outside influences. The young prince was called Siddhartha Gautama and lived in his palace. He was forbidden from leaving the palace and a wall was built, completely secluding him from the outside world. He was formally educated, married and had a family all within the confines of the palace.
Throughout his imprisonment he had what is called ‘The Four Visions’. On four separate occasions the gate was left ajar and he had a glimpse of the outside world. The first time he saw a sick person outside he was shocked because he had never encountered sickness before, the second time he glimpsed a beggar, again, the encounter shocked him. The third time he saw a very elderly man, for the first time witnessing the deterioration of age. Finally, the fourth time, as the gate was ajar he glimpsed a corpse. These four 'visions' caused the young prince to revaluate his formal education regarding Hindu philosophy.
Siddhartha Gautama at the age of 33 escaped and fled the palace leaving his life behind him, abandoning his wife and children and all his privileges in order to spend his time meditating on what he had seen. This is known as the Great Renunciation.
He spent the next six years looking for answers to his questions about suffering in the world. For two years he ate only a single grain of rice a day seeking to gain the knowledge he felt he lacked, he spent a further two years only drinking a single sip of water a day. Finally he spent two more years without consuming any food or drink. At the end of the six years of fasting he came to a fig tree where he stayed in meditation for 6 days at the end of which became 'enlightened' this is known as Nirvana, the highest state of knowledge. After which he changed his name from Siddhartha Gautama to Buddha meaning 'the Enlightened One' and the fig tree was renamed the 'Bodhi Tree' meaning the tree of wisdom. Buddha then spent the remainder of his life travelling and teaching his insights and knowledge.
The story of Buddha’s life is key to the Buddhist faith, giving weight to the message and providing a back drop for his insights. However it is universally acknowledged that a historically accurate picture of Siddhartha's life is impossible to reconstruct. The story given above is a common description and an amalgamation of written biographies dating from 400-500 years after the death of the Buddha. Many of these biographies have contradicting details and some are clearly embellished for a specific audience. In some depictions he is a transcendent god-prince figure like a kind of eastern Hercules. Other depictions have him as an ordinary human.
One depiction of his birth speaks of his mother’s painless labour and the baby being immediately was clean of afterbirth and able to walk and talk. He then proceeded to take seven steps in every direction and then proclaimed himself ruler of the universe.
There is no universally agreed or recognised story of the Buddha and there are many variants. There is simply no way of knowing, historically who Buddha really was. All sects of Buddhism recognise one set of texts but refute others and vice versa. Histologically speaking Buddhists agree on very little.
What was Buddha's insights?
The teaching Buddha received under the bodi tree is encapsulated in what is known as the 4 noble truths they are as follows.
What then is the 8 fold path by which you can eliminate your desires and escape suffering?
Being alive is to suffer
Suffering is caused by desire
Suffering can end when you eliminate your desires
Desire can be quenched by following the eight fold path
The ethos of Buddhism is called the Middle Way. Moderation in all things neither indulging in vices nor punishing yourself.
Someone who maintains the 8 fold path and the four noble truths successfully achieves enlightenment and escapes ‘Samsara’.
Samsara is the state of the world, happiness and suffering, life and death, a perpetual cycle of rebirths in which we are all trapped. As previously stated Buddhism comes from a Hindu context. Most notably the idea of reincarnation and karma; a good life produces good karma which pays off in your next rebirth. In Hinduism there is no escape from this system it is simply the eternal state of things.
A good example of Karma is in the Hindu caste system which pre-dates Buddha.
A good worm might be reborn as a bird; a good bird might be reborn as a cat, etc. A good human outcast (Dalit) will be reborn as a servant (Sudras) and a good servant will be reborn into the middle class (Vaishyas). The good middle classes will be reborn into the nobility (Kshatriyas) and finally after many lifetimes they will be born into the priest caste (Brahmins).
What Buddhism offered to the Hindu religion was an escape from this futile cycle by following Buddhism and through the 4 noble truths they were able to reach Nirvana and completely escape from Samsara.
Those that attain Nirvana will never again be reborn, when the Arahat (those that have achieved Nirvana) die their soul will re-join the universal spirit. The Hindu/Buddhist concept of the universal spirit (Brahman) is often depicted like a powerful river and the soul that enters it is like a raindrop in that river. Unlike the Christian understanding of meeting God, in Buddhism, all sense of individuality and self is lost. It is worth noting many western versions of Buddhism incorporate the atheist idea that there is only an empty void after death.
The right view (following the 4 noble truths)
The right resolve
The right speech (no gossip or slander)
The right behaviour (removing ill living)
The right occupation (monk or peaceful occupation e.g. soldiers, butchers, fishermen do not have the right occupation)
The right effort
The right contemplation
The right meditation
Splits in Buddhism
As with all major historical worldviews there exist divisions in thought. For Buddhism the first split came almost immediately after the Buddha’s death. Buddhist records document 18 different sects immediately after Buddha’s death, as well as many others from then until now. The four most prominent sects relevant for today are known as Mahayana, Theravada, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. While the core philosophy of the Four Noble truths is held by all, each emphasises certain elements of the path as more or less important. They also hold disagreements on the concept of Nirvana, the position of the Buddha and each maintain different scriptures as the authentic teaching of Buddha. The first most noticeable split came between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions.
This form of Buddhism is almost certainly closest to Buddhism in its original form and is often seen as fundamental Buddhism. Strict adherence to Buddha’s teachings is essential as preserved in sacred texts. Theravada Buddhism is set apart by the belief that the 'right occupation' mentioned in the 8 fold path is only that of a monk. Only someone who has dedicated this whole cycle in seclusion can ever reach Nirvana, it is simply unobtainable for anyone else. Buddha is seen as a wise and extraordinary man, but a man nonetheless.
Whilst sharing the same foundations as Therevada Buddhism it has some major modifications.
Buddha in the Mahayana traditions is regarded as a kind of god, a minor manifestation of the universal life force Brahman.
In Mahayana tradition it is not necessary to be a monk in order to achieve Nirvana. It does however take devotion and effort throughout one’s life.
The most important thing in this cycle is to help others achieve Nirvana, postponing your own 'salvation' is regarded as a noble act.
Whilst the Mahayana tradition uses different scripture they are used differently too. The content of their scripture is secondary to the innate power they have. Having scripture around you is like a talisman granting favour and success.
Known in Tibet as the 'Diamond way’, it developed much more recently around the 5-6th century AD. As Buddhism spread it came in to contact with the animalistic witchcraft of Tibet. This combination is the root of Tibetan Buddhism, it has an emphasis on yoga, incantations, hand gestures and spells. It introduced to Buddhism a tantric understanding of the body, energy flows through the body and yoga, meditation and sexual rituals harness that power. Tibetan Buddhism has a leadership position that is chosen through prophecy at birth known as the Dali Lama. The Dali lama is a reincarnation of the previous Dali Lama, the Dali Lama is seen an incarnation of a semi divine being of compassion that exists on earth to benefit the nation of Tibet.
Finally, Zen Buddhism, one of the most popular in the west, growing increasingly fashionable. It is an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism which split around 700-800AD. It teaches that anyone can reach nirvana by a mixture of meditation, altruistic acts and study of the sacred texts. Meditation in Zen Buddhism is practiced through Yoga (zazen). Zen Buddhism is easily adapted due to the position held by Zen teachers. Known as Zen Masters each Master inherits a line of teaching behind him. These past masters are known as Bodhisatttvas and are as revered as Buddha himself. Each Zen Master is free, whilst in keeping with his specific teachings lineage to emphasize the teaching that he most prefers. Zen Buddhism therefore is cultivated in a way far removed from its original context. Zen Buddhism is popular in part due to the fact that it has no core governing body and therefore none of the trappings of religion, it also comes with a feeling of spirituality and leaves the adherent feeling good after mediating through yoga. Taking time out of a stressful schedule, sitting still in quietness, stretching and using the body is of course a quite natural way of relaxing, Zen Buddhism spiritualizes these feelings.
Engaging with Buddhists
There is much within Buddhism that Christians can affirm and agree with and it is good to recognize these things in discussion, however it is important to understand the aspects in which the two faiths differ.
East – meet West
Broadly speaking Western and Eastern mind-sets are very different. Western philosophy and religions tend to have an intellectual basis; generally the varying parts of a person’s worldview will be slotted together as neatly as possible to create a concurrent belief system. When it comes to discussing differing philosophies or religions it is usually debated on intellectual grounds.
In contrast an eastern belief system does not have to be intellectually coherent. For example many Buddhists believe both in heaven, hell and reincarnation despite the fact they are clearly contradictory. What are of primary importance for many eastern religions are the practices and experiences involved in that belief. By experientially engaging with your worldview an eastern Buddhist could participate in chanting, rites and rituals for their whole life without questioning Buddhism intellectually.
This stems in part from the eastern honour culture. To asks questions is to challenge the status quo, asking why are things are as they are denotes a serious lack of respect to that subject or person. In contrast this is something encouraged in the west. Today, in the west, Buddhism is being embraced largely as a reaction to Christianity and the appeal of the exotic experiential understanding of the world. But these western Buddhist are still part of a western milieu, albeit one that is increasingly more aware of its global environment. Western Buddhism is often very far removed from any of the traditional Buddhist moorings. The concept of good Karma is something of an after-thought in the east and not emphasised at all, rather it is something primarily negative, bad things cause bad things to happen. This is skirted over in western Buddhism.
These differences between the two can be highlighted by looking at the strict regulations of the eastern Buddhist monastic communities. Imagine the lycra-clad, trendy, western Buddhist entering the ancient Buddhist monastery with its list of 227 stringent rules to of live by. These include the following rules…
Western Buddhism espouses freedom of thought and making your religion what you want it to be. The focus of your spiritual development and journey is far removed from the legalism in Eastern monasteries. Accordingly discussion with a traditional Buddhist and a westernised Buddhist is very different.
Spending any time alone with a member of the opposite sex is forbidden.
Staying overnight in the same building with someone of the opposite sex is forbidden.
Owning more than three robes is forbidden.
Storing food overnight is forbidden.
Watch T.V is forbidden with the exception of view Buddhist content.
Laughing audibly is forbidden
You may only look into the bowl when eating food that has been offered to you
Someone who identifies as a Buddhist could believe any number of things about God, the only way to know what they believe is to ask and engage in discussion. Quite often the best way to engage and challenge is to ask sincere probing questions. Here are just some probing questions that may be helpful in engaging with Buddhists.
An excellent discussion starter with a Buddhist is very simple. ‘So what exactly is Nirvana?’ This is not a trick question, but Nirvana itself is not very well defined in Buddhism and all the mainstream denominations of Buddhism disagree on its precise terms. Most traditional Buddhist understandings of Nirvana are in some sense annihilationist, meaning that the goal is to escape Samsara by destroying all sense of one’s own identity. You, as a person, your personality and character are literally destroyed in achieving Nirvana. This opens up all manner of questions that can be discussed.
At its essence Buddhism does not answer many fundamental questions.
Because Buddhism is so far removed from anything other than ancient eastern philosophy, it is entirely ill equipped to answer even basic philosophical questions regarding its beliefs.
At best a Buddhist adherent can only avoid these questions because a clear answer cannot be given, or the answers given cannot be intellectually or philosophically sustained. Such questions are unimportant in Buddhism. This is illustrated by a Buddhist concept called ‘avyakata’, often translated as the ‘unanswerable questions.’ Specific questions were often asked of the Buddha that he refused to answer. Each tradition has different questions on the list of unanswerable questions. Roughly they are as follows.
Why are we here?
What happens after death?
Are we created?
If there is a cycle of reincarnation what is the purpose of it and who set it in motion?
Varying sources indicate that Buddha was anti-intellectual regarding these basic philosophical questions that most people, both ancient and modern share. One source claims the Buddha saw this as ‘unwise reflection’. Other sources claim that to debate such questions was ‘a waste of time because a man’s task was to liberate himself from the present, not the past or the future’
So single minded is traditional Buddhism that the only necessity is to escape samsara, no consideration is given to why things are as they are. Buddhism therefore cannot claim to be a holistic faith incorporating the intellect, the emotions and the body.
In contrast Christianity makes it very clear that our humanity is created and designed in order to holistically engage with God recognising him in the past, present and future.
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ Matthew 22:37
You existed first and foremost in the mind of your creator from the foundation of the world.
‘For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.’ (Psalm 139: 13-16)
Your heavenly father made you with the intention of knowing you and loving you.
‘Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ (Matthew 25:34)
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.’ (Ephesians 1:3-4)
True Christ followers experience the knowledge of a meaningful relationship. Christ provides intellectual sustenance to the curiosity we are all created with whilst at the same time, knowing God is an experiential phenomenon. Both extremes cannot stand alone in a holistic worldview; cold intellectualism reduces God to a simple provider of answers, but does not engage with him, like studying a meal but refusing to eat it. Likewise solely glorifying practices and experiences is a naive approach to the supernatural, seeking only what looks or feels good without thinking who or what you are engaging with, like gobbling down a meal without looking, smelling or tasting what it is you are ingesting.
Is the world eternal?
Is the self, identical to the body?
Does someone who has achieved enlightenment exist after death?
What am I?
How am I here?
Did I exist in the past?
Shall I exist in the future?
Where will I go when I die?
‘Do you believe there is a God?’
Many Buddhists do not believe in God, this for many is one of the advantages of Buddhism, you can look and feel like a ‘spiritual’ person whilst denying that there is a higher personality to whom you are responsible.
‘Who is it that judges actions as having good or bad karma?’
If the Buddhist is an atheist this is a really difficult question. Many situations people find themselves in are not morally black and white but grey. If Nirvana is achieved in part by ‘doing good’ in a karmic sense, who created this cyclical system and who maintains and judges over it? In contrast the Bible states ‘all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). The Bible shows that we all have ‘bad karma’ and are deserving of its consequence. But we are rescued by Jesus, ‘For it is my Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ (John 6:40).
A common objection from Buddhists to the Gospel is that it is essentially a “cop out”, ‘You should be responsible for your own wrong doing and not pass it on to a third party.’ The accusation is really quite fair and allows for a deep discussion on the Gospel and what it means.
‘What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6: 1-2)
‘For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.’ (Romans 6:5-8)
The Gospel is not about moralistic interpretations of right or wrong, but it is primarily about relationship with God. Right is the way God designed things to be and wrong is anything that departs from the way it was intended to be. So when that true relationship is restored the heart’s desire is to do right for no other reason than because you love God, as was intended from the beginning. The consequences of our wrong doing are removed but our own heart is transformed to desire to do ‘right’.
If Buddhists can’t agree on which scriptural writings or traditions are actually true statements from Buddha? How can you know it’s true?
Historical and textual criticism is something that has been levelled at Christianity, the claims of Christ and the Bible for over 200 years, nevertheless Christianity, Christ and the Bible have stood firm as historical realities. If anything, the last 200 years of attack have made the case for the Bible stronger. Buddhism has had no such trial by fire and does not stand up to even basic objective academic scrutiny.
The earliest group of Buddhist writings is called the Pali Canon and dates to 29BC. The Pali Canon was written by the fourth Buddhist council who inscribed the varying oral traditions for the first time, 454 years after Buddha’s death. There is only scant manuscript evidence attesting to the first century Pali Canon. The oldest surviving complete manuscript evidence of Buddha’s teachings only appears in the 15th century AD, nearly 2000 years separate the death of Buddha and the earliest surviving complete written record of his words. There has, historically, been several Buddhist councils that have revised the Pali Canon, most notably the Thai eighth Buddhist council in 1477AD right up to the most recent of these councils called the Last Council (or sixth Buddhist council) in 1956. Due to the sheer lack of manuscript evidence we have simply no way to determine what in Buddhist scripture has been changed when, by whom and for what purpose. As it currently stands the historical Buddha is unreachable, whilst most scholars agree that he probably existed we cannot definitively know anything about his life let alone the intricacies of his teachings.
In contrast, the oldest confirmed manuscript fragment containing words of Jesus is the Ryland Papyrus P52 dated to around 100AD in addition to a recent discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark which dates to around 80AD. This puts the length of time between the death of Jesus and the oldest surviving written record of his words at 50-70 years, in comparison to the 450-500 year gap with the first fragments of Buddhist teaching.
Furthermore among the writings of the early church fathers (writing from 100-300 AD) there are enough biblical quotes to recreate the Bible from those quotes alone, in doing so we find that it matches with the Bibles found in churches today. We can be confident the Bible we hold is a translation of what was originally written, whilst some linguistic variances exist they are easily explained by the translation of the texts, none of these linguistic variances occur in portions of the text that contain Jesus’ teaching. There have been no major changes in the Bibles narrative from when it was written. In contrast 2500 years separate Buddha’s death and the final version of his teaching and this final version is still not universally accepted by all Buddhists.
What is the connection in reincarnation between our prior lives and this one?
It is well established in Buddhist teaching that your karma is transferred from one life to the next. Buddhism commonly teaches that humans have no permanent soul (Doctrine of Anatta) this is accepted by all major schools of Buddhism.
Essentially Buddhism differs from Hinduism by claiming that the reincarnation or rebirth is essentially an entirely different body and soul, the analogy often used is that it is like the embers of one fire starting a separate fire. Some Buddhists claim that it is only the mind/consciousness and that links rebirth, whereas others claim that it is only the karmic cycle that is reincarnated again. This system seems grossly unjust, a person born with bad karmic history must live a life of debased suffering in order to be reborn in a better life, but as an individual personality he has done nothing to deserve this destiny and can do nothing to better it. Furthermore this person sees no benefits from enduring it and being a good person despite of it, the good karma he earns goes to a distinctly different person that he may or may not share a vague consciousness with.
How do you help people who are suffering?
If a persons present suffering is simply the result of bad karma, should we do anything to help them? A better question might be, can we do anything to help them? Within Buddhism every experience, good and bad is a part of samsara rather than being angry, aggrieved or upset at negative life experiences and injustices Buddhism encourages people to simply let them go. This idea seems ideal, but in reality it is not only impractical and unrealistic but it is inadequate for dealing when we are confronted with legitimate suffering and the human desire to help the downtrodden. Sometimes it is right to be angry, when thinking of some of the inhumanity in the world. For example concerning rape or paedophilia the correct response is to be angry at the injustice, and the wrongness of it.
‘Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not give the devil an opportunity’ (Ephesians 4:26-27)
The biblical instruction to ‘be angry’ is confusing especially considering the fact that it is followed by the following instruction in the same chapter.
‘Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.’ (Ephesians 4:31-32)
Two types of anger are being discussed. The first is the Greek word ‘orgizo’ to become provoked or enraged the second is ‘orge’ to desire violence or vengeance.
So we are told that becoming enraged under specific circumstances is ‘right’ provided it does not cause us to sin, however, to angrily desire vengeance and violence upon another person is not good but rather be forgiving toward that person. In many ways assisting a suffering person starts with being enraged (orgizo) at the unjust situation and setting out to alter it.
An example of this balance took place in American courts when Judge Amber Wolfe was in the process of charging a convicted burglar. She was provoked (orgizo) by his actions to hand down a just punishment, but she also knew that the convict had never had the opportunity to hold his month old baby and was due to go back to prison shortly. Judge Wolfe broke convention and allowed the prisoner to meet his baby for the first time. The judge displayed a complete lack of malice (orge) for the man who was being tried whilst at the same time pronouncing judgement on him.
A discussion on suffering is really important for a Buddhist, escaping Samsara is the pivotal goal of the Buddhist. Teaching on suffering and what suffering is in the Christian worldview is an excellent place to start discussion. Rather than insisting that the search to end suffering is the wrong search, a Christian can legitimately tell a Buddhist that you as a spiritual seeker have found the path to the end of suffering. A true eastern Buddhist will be eminently aware of his own sin and his inability to escape the consequences of sin. The word in Thai Buddhism for the negative effects of your own karma is ‘gum’ interestingly the same word ‘gum’ means death. For a Thai Buddhist the biblical warning in Romans 6:23 ‘the wages of sin is death’ is something they already are aware of.
True Buddhism leaves Buddhist here, the wages of sin is death, go, find the path to remove your ‘gum’. In one respect Buddhism can easily lead to the gospel as the escape from your own sin or ‘gum’.
Escape from Samsara, Karma, the Law and condemnation
When someone tells you they are a Buddhist a good question might be to ask them how do they manage to keep the five precepts of Buddhism because it seems so hard.
The five precepts are akin to the Ten Commandments. Both are a shortened easy to remember code of conduct that sounds morally reasonable but virtually impossible to keep.
The five precepts are…
Abstain from killing, (that is killing anything, strict Buddhist are not allowed antibiotics because it kills bacteria)
Abstain from taking that which is not given. (stealing or desiring what another has)
Abstain from sensual misconduct (including thought)
Abstain from false speech (lying)
Abstain from any fermented drink (or any other intoxicants)
A parallel can be drawn in discussion with the precepts of Buddha and the commandments of Moses. Both highlight the need for moral conduct and both leave us in despair at being unable to achieve it.
This place of despair at our own sin and the suffering that it entails highlights our helplessness and the need for a saviour. For the Buddhist, escape from suffering is the goal but for the Christian it is the perfect connection or rather reconnection with the Father’s love. Jesus came to do both, to remove the consequences of sin and to re-establish our link to perfect love.
‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Re-established relationship), because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death (Samsara). For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh (Samsara), God did by sending his own Son (relationship) in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh (the end of Samsara).’ (Romans 8:1-3)