“When you are a truly happy Christian, you are also a Buddhist. And vice versa.” So concludes best-selling author and Buddhist monk Thich Hhat Hanh near the end of his popular book Living Buddha, Living Christ.
Some Catholics agree. For example, Jesuit Father Robert E. Kennedy, a Roshi (Zen master), holds Zen retreats at Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City. He states on his web site: “I ask students to trust themselves and to develop their own self-reliance through the practice of Zen.” The St. Francis Chapel at Santa Clara University hosts the weekly practice of “mindfulness and Zen meditation.” Indeed, the number of Buddhist retreats and workshops being held at Catholic monasteries and parishes is growing.
Similarly, controversial New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg writes in Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, “Jesus and the Buddha were teachers of wisdom,” contending that “wisdom is not just about moral behavior, but about the ‘center,’ the place from which moral perception and moral behavior flow.” Jesus and Buddha proclaimed a “world-subverting wisdom,” Borg writes, “that undermined and challenged conventional ways of seeing and being in their time and in every time.” He notes that both men spoke about “the way” and concludes, “Thus both were teachers of the way less traveled. ‘Way’ or ‘path’ imagery is central to both bodies of teaching.”
But are these two “ways” really as compatible as Hanh, Kennedy, Borg, and others believe? What similarities and differences are there between the historical persons and teachings of Jesus and Buddha? Can we agree with Hanh that people should be able to have “both the Buddha and Jesus within their life”?
Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, with about 370 million adherents. Although less than 1 percent of Americans identify themselves as Buddhist, interest in this ancient belief system is growing. There are more Buddhist texts in major bookstores than works dedicated to Islam or Hinduism, and there has been a steady stream of articles and books by and about the Dalai Lama in recent years.
Since the 1960s, the influence of Buddhist thought in some Catholic circles has become increasingly evident. After the Second Vatican Council’s call for respectful interreligious dialogue, many Catholics—including some priests and religious—fully embraced the study of Buddhism. Much was made of the “common characteristics” of Catholicism and Buddhism, particularly in the realm of ethics. External similarities (including monks, meditation, and prayer beads) seemed to indicate newly discovered commonalities between the followers of Christ and Buddha. While some edifying dialogue took place, some Catholics mistakenly concluded that Buddhism was just as true as Christianity and that any criticism of Buddhism was merely “triumphalistic.”
Today it is not uncommon for Catholic retreat centers to offer classes and lectures on Zen Buddhism, Christ and Buddha, and even “Zen Catholicism.” Their bookstores feature titles such as Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life; Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings; and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers, wherein comparisons are made between Christian and Buddhist mysticism, at times suggesting that the two are essentially identical in character and intent.
As one self-proclaimed “Christian Buddhist,” John Malcomson, explains, “People often ask me how I could think of myself as a Christian Buddhist. The simple answer is that I don’t see God as separate from me.” Rather, he states, “God is within me as God is within all things.”
Malcomson is just one of a growing number of Christians drawn to Buddhism. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II notes, “Today we are seeing a certain diffusion of Buddhism in the West.” What makes this diffusion possible, and why is Buddhism attractive to so many?
Buddhism offers spiritual vitality in the midst of the emptiness of secular life, gives the promise of inner peace, and meets the desire for an explicit moral code. In his classic study Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, Edward Conze writes, “To a person who is thoroughly disillusioned with the contemporary world, and with himself, Buddhism may offer many points of attraction, in the transcending sublimity of the fairy land of its subtle thoughts, in the splendor of its works of art, in the magnificence of its hold over vast populations, and in the determined heroism and quiet refinement of those who are steeped in it.”
Another appeal is the non-dogmatic and ostensibly open-minded character of Buddhism. For those who reject the dogmatic, objective claims of Christianity or hold that Christianity should avoid an “exclusive” approach to truth, Buddhism offers an easier alternative. Buddhists teach that they do not practice a religion, a philosophy, or a type of science but rather a way of life that cannot be explained by or contained within any categories used in traditional Western thought. What makes Buddhism so “open-minded,” though, is that its teachings are deliberately ambiguous.
Put another way, Buddhism transcends notions of “religion” or “belief” and so can appear compatible with Christianity. In an interview with Beliefnet.com, the Dalai Lama stated, “According to different religious traditions, there are different methods. . . . For example, a Christian practitioner may meditate on God’s grace, God’s infinite love. This is a very powerful concept in order to achieve peace of mind. A Buddhist practitioner may be thinking about relative nature and also Buddha-nature. This is also very useful.”
In other words, Christianity and Buddhism are two ways to the same end; Jesus and Buddha are two enlightened teachers who help man to that end. Or, as a reader on a Christian discussion forum stated, “Buddha was just a philosopher who urged men to be selfless. Jesus was just a philosopher who urged men to be selfless. Love is just another word for selfless.” Such easy parallels between Christ and Buddha, unfortunately, are misleading and distort the teachings of Christ.
Buddha (c. 563–c. 483 B.C.), born Siddhartha Gautama, was the son of an Indian king. Around the age of thirty, he left his privileged life in court to become an ascetic and spent several years traveling and meditating on the human condition, considering especially the reality of suffering. One day, meditating beneath a bodhi tree, he became enlightened (buddha means “enlightened one”) and afterward began to teach his dharma, or doctrine, of the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths are these:
- Life is suffering.
- The cause of suffering is desire.
- To be free from suffering, we must detach from desire.
- The “eight-fold path” is the way to alleviate desire.
The eightfold path consists of right views, right intentions, right speech, and right actions along with livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
The final goal of Buddhism is not merely to eradicate desire but to be free of suffering.
Buddha also taught the “three characteristics of being”:
- All things are transitory.
- There is no self or personality.
- This world brings only pain and suffering.
Based on these characteristics, Buddhism asserts that to accept the existence of anything is to give birth to its opposite (e.g., love and hate, joy and fear, etc.), which results in the duality of “good” and “bad.” Nirvana—literally, “extinguishing a flame”—is the extinction of self and the escape from the cycle of reincarnation.
While Buddhism allows belief in an afterlife, such an allowance is called upaya, an expedient means to a real end. Upaya allows belief to exist as a means to an end; all belief, including that of Buddhism, is merely a construction. According to the logic of upaya, Christianity is allowable as a stage toward spiritual progression, leading eventually to the extinction of self, or nirvana.
The term dharma is difficult to define. One meaning implies the teachings of Buddha or doctrine/law. Ultimately, though, all dharma is provisional; it is simply a means that is without real meaning. Peter Harvey, in his Introduction to Buddhism, says that “one dharma cannot ultimately be distinguished from another: the notion of the ‘sameness’ of dharmas. Their shared ‘nature’ is ‘emptiness’ (sangata). As the Heart Sutra says, ‘Whatever is material shape, that is emptiness, and whatever is emptiness, that is material shape.’” In other words, dharma is itself illusory.
Sometimes it is said that Buddhism is atheistic, yet Buddhism is not interested in the question of God, so it is more accurate to describe it as practically atheistic or simply agnostic. Buddhism “works” whether or not there is a God. A Buddhist allows others to believe in God or gods, but such beliefs are merely convenient means to the final end, which has nothing to do with God or gods.
“God is neither affirmed nor denied by Buddhism,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in Mystics and Zen Masters, “insofar as Buddhists consider such affirmations and denials to be dualistic, therefore irrelevant to the main purpose of Buddhism, which is emancipation from all forms of dualistic thought.” This is captured well in the sutras (scriptures), which state that to escape desire one must “not become attached to existence nor to non-existence, to anything inside or outside, neither to good things nor to bad things, neither to right nor wrong.” In Buddhism, all distinctions must be extinguished; even enlightenment has no definite nature.
What’s the Purpose?
Despite many external similarities, Buddhist meditation and contemplation is quite different from orthodox Christianity. Buddhist meditation strives to “wake” a person from his existential delusions. “Therefore, despite similar aspects, there is a fundamental difference” between Christian and Buddhist mysticism, writes Pope John Paul II. “Christian mysticism . . . is not born of a purely negative ‘enlightenment.’ It is not born of an awareness of the evil that exists in man’s attachment to the world through the senses, the intellect, and the spirit. Instead, Christian mysticism is born of the revelation of the living God” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope).
The Buddhist mystic seeks absorption into an impersonal whole, looking to rid himself of desire and suffering. The Christian mystic, on the other hand, desires neither the loss of personality nor an impersonal oneness with all but a deep and abiding communion with the Triune and personal God.
Jean Cardinal Daniélou, known for his study of Eastern religions, explains in God and the Ways of Knowing that “mystical knowledge partakes in the life of the Trinity. It is the realization by man of his deepest being, of what God meant to achieve in creating him.”
For the Christian mystic, there is an object (the loving and merciful God) and a growth in the salvific life of grace, leading to everlasting life. On the other hand, the Buddhist sutras state that the “categories of everlasting life and death, and existence and non-existence, do not apply to the essential nature of things but only to their appearances as they are observed by defiled human eyes.” Buddhism resists existential possibility; Christianity affirms it.
Catholics believe that the Church is the Bride of Christ, the seed of the kingdom of God, and the conduit of God’s grace and mercy in the world. Buddhists believe that church, or sangha, is in the end upaya—nothing more than the expedient means to final extinction.
Rather than the Beatific Vision, Buddhist teaching holds that non-existence is the only hope for escaping the pains of life.
The Catholic Church teaches that although suffering is not part of God’s perfect plan, it can bring us closer to Christ and unite us more intimately with our suffering Lord. Buddhism teaches that suffering must be escaped from; indeed, this is a central concern of Buddhism. Christianity is focused on worshiping God, holiness, and the restoration of right relationships between God and man through the work of Jesus. The Buddhist, on the other hand, is not concerned with whether or not God exists, nor does he offer worship. Instead, he seeks his own nirvana.
Catholicism believes that truth, and the Author of truth, can be known rationally (to a significant yet limited extent) and through divine revelation. In contrast, Buddhism denies existential reality; nothing, including the self, can be proven to exist. As the dharma states: “Things are like illusion; they can be said neither to be existent nor non-existent.”
Attracting Hungry Souls
Fr. Romano Guardini, in his classic work The Lord, stated his belief that Buddha would be the greatest challenge to Christ in the modern age. Such an assertion may appear somewhat exaggerated in our age, but Buddhist teachings seriously threaten Christianity’s central doctrines. Because it appears to be peaceful, non-judgmental, and inclusive, its appeal undoubtedly will continue to grow. Buddhism’s refusal to articulate dharma in logical ways and its comfortable insistence on a relativistic approach to knowledge and truth makes dialogue quite difficult. Because it offers a spirituality that is ostensibly free of doctrine and authority, it will attract hungry souls looking for fulfillment and meaning. “For this reason,” the Holy Father states, “it is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East.”
Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) says, “Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination.” It continues, noting that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” and believes that other religions, in certain ways, “often reflect a ray of that Truth that enlightens all men.”
But the document also insists that the Church “proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself” (NA 2). While the Council noted that Buddhism may contain a “ray of Truth,” it did not endorse appropriation of Buddhist beliefs into Christian practice. Rather, the Council insisted that non-Catholic religions can be fulfilled only through the truths held exclusively by the Catholic faith.
The perennial teachings of the Catholic Church and the Buddhist sangha are inherently incompatible. Whereas God remains completely other, distinct from his creation, higher Buddhist discourse rejects the possibility of any such duality. There can be no Creator/creature distinction in Buddhism.
From an apologetic perspective, dialogue with a Buddhist is hindered almost from the start, as the two great philosophical tools of Christianity—ontology and epistemology—are discarded in Buddhist discourse. That is, if existence itself is untenable, how can creation be proven? If creation is untenable, how can God be proven to exist? So it is vital when entering into dialogue with a Buddhist to understand Buddhist objections to Christian beliefs. In the end, we should remember that the Council of Nicaea taught that men must have one thing before truly becoming a member of the body of Christ: faith.
Shortly before the Holy Father’s visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1979, the Dalai Lama was greeted there. A monsignor in the receiving line recalls his encounter with the Buddhist patriarch: The Dalai Lama approached him, gazed into his eyes, and queried, “Father, do you know the difference between you and me?”
“No, Your Holiness,” replied the monsignor.
“You believe in a personal God,” the Dalai Lama observed, “and I do not.”
This, above all, marks the difference between Christians and Buddhists. Beyond the rhetoric of “peace,” “compatibility,” and “the way,” there remains one profound difference between Buddha and Jesus: Jesus is God; Buddha is not.