When comparing and/or contrasting two religions, there are two equal and opposite dangers which must be avoided. The first is to say that all religions are essentially variations of the same moral and/or spiritual teachings. This denies the uniqueness of each religious tradition, and in doing so insults all religions. The second, which is at least as bad, is to assume that there is no overlap between religions, or that they don't really have anything to teach each other.
I write on both Buddhism and Christianity (though as a Christian and a former minister I've written a great deal more on Christian topics). This is because I "find myself" in the context of each of these great religious traditions. I am a Christian, and my Christian faith is essential to me. It is the very air I breathe. But at a time when my faith was too weak to sustain me I encountered the teachings of the Buddha, and they nearly saved my life.
I love both Christianity and Buddhism. Because of my love for these traditions I try to expose people to the best in both of them. In doing so, I occasionally write about areas in which they overlap - though in doing so I want to make clear that they are not "essentially" saying the same thing. Buddhism and Christianity are very different religious traditions, but Buddhists and Christians have a great deal to learn from each other.
Here is a paper (Comparing, Contrasting and Evaluating Christian "Salvation" and Buddhist "Enlightenment" in the "Problem-Solution" Model) I wrote on some of the common ground between these religious traditions, edited slightly for this blog:
Humans, it seems, are innately religious. There is not, to my knowledge a single known instance of a human culture without a rich spiritual or religious tradition. So, what accounts for this? How did religion arise, and why are people (in general) religious? There are as many answers to questions like this as there are diverse religious and spiritual traditions. Sigmund Freud believed that religion is "a universal obsessional neurosis," evidence that human beings, in general, are seriously mentally and psychologically defective. Emile Durkheim believed that religion serves as a means by which to hold society together. Karl Marx believed that religion serves as a means by which to hold together a system of economic exploitation. Mircea Eliade believed that religion serves to bring people into contact with the "sacred."
Each of these theories, and, in fact, all general theories of religion, seek to explain why people in general, or humanity as a whole, is religious. In doing so, whether explicitly or implicitly, they treat religion as a single subject, and they treat humanity as a collective rather than a group of individuals. But humanity is comprised of individuals. It is not a thing in and of itself. As such, humanity as a whole cannot act. It cannot do or choose anything. Rather, only individuals within humanity can act. Only individuals can choose to be religious or irreligious. And, the choice is not just between religion and irreligion; it is also between many diverse religious and spiritual traditions. And, while decisions made by individuals are often conditioned by factors outside the volition of the individual; still individuals, for individual reasons, make decisions related to religion.
So, perhaps, the question is not "why are people religious?" Perhaps the question is, "why is this person religious?" "Why did this person choose this particular religious tradition?" There are, of course, many possible answers to that question. People choose to be religious or irreligious for many reasons, some within the realm of volition, others within the realm of conditioning. But one reason why any person would choose to be a religious person within a particular religious tradition is because, in some way, the theory and practice of that religious or spiritual tradition "works" for them.
But, what does it mean to say that something "works" with regard to religion? Certainly it does not mean the same thing as saying that the garage door opener works, or saying that the oven works. Spirituality cannot be accurately compared to an appliance which either serves its function or fails to serve its function, can it? And, even if it could, is religion the sort of thing that is best described in terms of functionality? Many of the theories outlined in the opening of this paper would say so; but those theories fail to accurately describe the individual experience of religion. So, to the individual, what does it mean to say that religion works?
Many, most, and, perhaps all human beings have a deep-seated existential need to find some kind of "meaning" in life. Many, most, and, perhaps all people also have, related to that existential need, some kind of deep-seated feeling, often inarticulateable, that there is something "wrong." This feeling, in the context of this question for meaning, represents a kind of existential problem. An individual's experience of religion, as well as the choices that an individual makes with regard to religion, may represent their way of "solving" that existential problem.
Each religion, in some way, offers up both a diagnosis of and a prescription for this problem. The diagnosis and prescription, while often offered in general terms, are expressions which are experienced, evaluated, internalized, and either accepted or rejected by the individual. One way, then, to compare and contrast, as well as evaluate the merits of various religious and spiritual expressions and traditions is to look at the way in which they diagnose and attempt to solve the basic individual human existential problem.
In many respects Christianity and Buddhism are as far apart as two religious or spiritual traditions can get. Christianity tends to be exclusivistic; Buddhism tends to be tolerant and pluralistic. Christianity is strongly monotheistic; Buddhism is non-theistic. Christianity is an often very doctrinal belief system; Buddhism is often held as a way of life which is not terribly attached to doctrine or belief. Christianity helped shape Western culture; Buddhism arose out of and embodies Eastern culture. But, both Buddhism and Christianity, in their most basic forms, offer diagnoses and prescriptions for the existential problem. And, while those diagnoses and prescriptions certainly do not entirely overlap, ways in which each tradition has expressed those diagnoses and prescriptions have many elements in common.
This paper attempts to compare and contrast the Buddhist and Christian teachings which deal with what I have called the existential problem, within the context of a "problem-solution" model. In other words, it looks at the Christian concept of "salvation" and teachings related to it, as well as the Buddhist concept of "enlightenment" and teachings related to it. It looks at the concepts through the lens of "problem-solution." In other words, it focuses on how each of these teachings diagnoses the existential problem, and attempts to solve that problem.
It should be said that I am a Methodist, and so the version of Christianity presented here is a very Methodist version. The model of salvation is the Wesleyan model found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. I chose this model in part because, as a Methodist, I am biased toward it. But I also picked it because it is a very progressive model of salvation, describing salvation as an ongoing process rather than an instantaneous transformation. In this respect I see it as having much more in common with Buddhism than many other Christian models of salvation. I also find that this model more closely conforms to the way in which I actually experience life.
So, how do Christianity and Buddhism describe the existential problem? Let us first start with Christianity. In Christianity the basic problem is "sin." While it is not always clear what is meant by the word sin, Paul E. Little, a Christian apologist with the group Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (a non-denominational group which does not always agree with Methodist or Wesleyan theology) says that "[s]in is always primarily directed against God." "The seriousness of sin" according to Little, "is based on man's alienation from and broken fellowship with God." In other words, humans experience the existential problem because, through sin, they have somehow broken their relationship with God, which is the source of meaning, purpose, and happiness in life.
Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher, echoes Little's notion of alienation when he defines sin, in his book Making Sense out of Suffering, as "the disharmony or alienation between the soul and God." So then, a Catholic philosopher and an evangelical fundamentalist both agree that the existential problem is, in essence, a problem related to disharmony or alienation which is rooted in sin. And, to both Kreeft and Little, sin is both a conscious act and a condition. This alienation is an alienation, then, which we both choose and do not choose. We choose, in many cases, to act in the ways in which we act. And those actions are sin, and tainted by sin. But we are not entirely aware of our sinful condition, which helps to explain the choices that we make.
Buddhism, in its most basic presentation, is much more empirical and much less theoretical than Christianity. As such, the Buddhist presentation of the existential problem is much more concise, and does not need to make reference to undefined theological terms. To Buddhists, the problem is simply this: we suffer. In fact, the most traditional English translation of the first noble truth of the Buddha is, "Life is suffering." Donald S. Lopez, Jr., the professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, says, in his book The Story of Buddhism, "The first truth is the truth of suffering." There are many forms of suffering that human beings experience, "birth, aging, sickness, death, losing friends, gaining enemies, not finding what one wishes for, encountering what one does not with for." But, there is also a much more subtle form of suffering, and that, oddly enough, is pleasure. "Each source of pleasure will eventually become a source of pain." Nothing lasts forever; nothing remains unchanged. But we attempt to cling to the kinds of experiences that we prefer, that we find pleasurable. That clinging; that failure to recognize the impermanence of pleasurable experiences, causes us pain. As such, Lopez says, "Pleasure is... compared to the relief felt when a heavy burden is shifted from one shoulder to another. After a while, the other shoulder will begin to hurt, at which point the burden will be shifted back."
Life then, is characterized by suffering, and is full of causes of suffering. And, just as Christianity observes that the suffering - at least the existential suffering - which one experiences (in this case, alienation from God) has a very personal cause (sin); Buddhism also says that suffering has a personal cause. The second noble truth, in fact, deals with the cause of suffering. It is often rendered, in English, "suffering comes from desire," but Walpola Rahula, the great Buddhist monk and scholar, translates the term samudya as "thirst." This thirst represents a particular kind of desire. It is a desire which can lead only to frustration. This frustration is caused either by the object of the desire or the nature of the desire. It is a thirsting for that which cannot be had, an unquenchable thirst. Or, it is a thirsting for that which can be had, but, if had, would only cause pain. Or, finally, it can be a thirsting which cannot be quenched because it wants something too much, far beyond the bounds of health or reason. Whatever the reason, this samudya, this "thirst" or desire or craving, causes suffering.
In both Christianity and Buddhism, then, the existential problem has a personal cause, and that cause is rooted both in volition and conditioning. Christianity describes this cause as being sin, which is both an act and a condition. Buddhism describes it as a kind of clinging, desperate desire; an unquenchable thirst for that which either can't be had or shouldn't be had. And, just as our actions are rooted in both volition and conditioning, so our desires are both volitional and conditioned.
Our pain, our suffering, is what informs us of our existential problem. And our pain, our suffering, is at the center of both the Christian and Buddhist diagnoses of our existential problem. But, while suffering is Buddhist diagnosis of our problem, the existence of suffering is a huge problem, in and of itself, for Christians. Critics of traditional, theistic Christianity have long said that the theistic description of God is logically inconsistent with the fact of pain and suffering in God's creation. This is called the problem of pain, the problem of suffering, or the problem of evil. This theological problem may or may not represent a real critique of Christianity - after all, not all Christians hold to the theistic description of God which presents the logical problem, and many who do have come up with complex theodicies to attempt to explain the problem away. Whether it does or not, the problem of pain does illustrate an important distinction between Christianity and Buddhism. Buddhists say that it is not necessary for God to exist, God is not empirically experienced, and the descriptions of God cause philosophic problems; so one does not need to believe in God. Christians, however, do hold to God, and usually a particular description of God. As such they have to come up with complex theological attempts to reconcile such problems.
But, while Buddhists may not see why Christians need to cling to their belief in God, Christians have problems with the Buddhist prescription for the existential problem which is made known by our pain and suffering. Peter Kreeft, the Catholic philosopher, renders the Buddha's third noble truth thus: "...[T]he way to end suffering is to end desire. Nirvana (extinction) is that state. The world tries to close the gap between desire and satisfaction by increasing satisfaction, and never succeeds. Buddha takes the opposite road: decrease desire to zero." He then says, "I am not a Buddhist. I cannot help viewing Nirvana as spiritual euthanasia, killing the patient (the self, the I, the ego) to cure the disease (egotism, selfishness)."
Westerners have a tremendous problem with a particular Buddhist teaching, anatman, or "no-self." Rahula quotes the Buddha as saying "The world is in continuous flux, and is impermanent." He then goes on to say, "One thing disappears, conditioning the appearance of the next in a series of cause and effect. There is no unchanging substance in them. There is nothing behind them that can be called a permanent Self (Atman), individuality, or anything that can in reality be called 'I'." Because of this, Buddhaghosa (as quoted by Rahula) says "Mere suffering exists, but no sufferer is found; / The deeds are, but no doer is found." At the heart of Buddhist teaching is the notion of no-self, anatman. This stands with and before the Buddha's four noble truths about suffering. It is our desire to have a permanent self; to be a permanent self that creates a great deal of suffering in us. And, Buddhists say, there is no empirical reason to hold to a notion of impermanent self-hood. After all, we never experience anything as being permanent, much less our selves. We, along with everything else, are in a constant state of flux. It is when we try to hold static that which is constantly changing that we suffer.
It is this notion which Kreeft called "spiritual euthanasia." He simply could not make the jump to anatman. But, in his rendering and criticism of Buddhism from a Christian perspective, did Kreeft get it right? Did he accurately describe the third noble truth, and does he really understand either the concept of no-self, or the related concept of emptiness? Rahula says that "[t]he Third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha. This is called the Noble Truth of the cessation of dukkha (Dukkhanirodhaariyasacca), which is Nibbana, more popularly known in its Sanskrit form of Nirvana." So far, so good. Kreeft's rendering is not far from Rahula's. Rahula then goes on to say, "To eliminate dukkha completely one has to eliminate the main root of dukkha, which is 'thirst' (tanha)... Therefore Nirvana is known also by the term Tanhakkaya 'Extinction of Thirst.'" So, while it may seem crude to render Nirvana as simply "Extinction," that description of it, while over simplified, is not unlike Rahula's description. But, where Kreeft gets it wrong is in his description of "desire."
He seems to think that Buddhism aims for the extinction of all desires, but that is not the case. Tanha does not represent all desires; it merely represents the kinds of unhealthy desires which lead to suffering. Buddhism actually encourages desires which lead to the four sublime states: Metta (universal love), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy) and Upekkha (equanimity). So, the Buddhist prescription for suffering is not exactly the "spiritual euthanasia" which Kreeft describes, though anatman is an uncomfortable idea for Westerners.
But, while the Buddhist prescription involves surrendering all claims to a permanent self, in many respects it is a rather self-centered solution, at least in the sense that the solution, much like the problem, resides in the individual. Suffering cannot be brought to an end by any external force, entity, or action. It is experienced internally, and must be ended internally, through the extinguishing of unhealthy desires which are rooted in the ignorant claim of a permanent self. In this respect, the Christian prescription is very different.
In the Wesleyan/Methodist expression of the Christian concept of salvation, the sinner is saved by the grace of God, which is divided into three kinds of graces: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace. Prevenient Grace is, according to the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, "the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of all of our conscious impulses." It "awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith." In other words, it is the grace of God which is active in the lives of all people, without distinction, aiming to bring them closer to salvation.
That salvation is accomplished by what is known as Justifying Grace, which brings about the "process of justification." The Book of Discipline says, "In justification we are, through faith, forgiven our sin and restored to God's favor. This righting of relationships by God through Christ calls forth our faith and trust as we experience regeneration, by which we are made new creatures in Christ." So, salvation entails the gradual elimination of the conditions which give rise to our existential crisis. This elimination is by grace through faith, which means that it is not accomplished by the effort of the individual, but rather by the work of God, through Jesus Christ. While human beings are to participate in that work, they are not responsible for it. They cannot act as the agents of their own salvation.
Sanctification is a very Wesleyan concept, and in the Methodist Church it is inseparably linked to salvation. The "[n]ew birth" of salvation is, according to The Book of Discipline, "the first step in the process of sanctification. Sanctifying grace draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection, which [John] Wesley described as a heart 'habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor' and as 'having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.'" Like salvation, or justification, sanctification is not accomplished by any work by the individual, but rather by the grace of God. And, like justification, it is described as a "process" rather than an instantaneous transformation. As justification gradually eliminates the conditions which give rise to our existential problem, sanctification gradually eliminates the possibility of sin. One who is sanctified is one who has been made perfect, and is no longer capable of any kind of sin.
The work of salvation; the work of justification and sanctification, is held by Christians to have been accomplished by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This notion, central to the Christian religion, is one which has given Buddhists a great deal of trouble. While the words of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Mark, "...whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life... will save it," may sound like Zen to some Westerners, the crucifixion of Jesus, which is the great scandal of Christianity, is an obstacle to Buddhists. After all, Christians claim that this destructive act was made necessary by human sin. They claim that, in fact, it is only through the death of an innocent person that they are saved. Such claims are baffling to Buddhists in at least two respects. First, it seems strange to the Buddhist that one would need a savior at all. After all, in Buddhism, as in Christianity, the problem is contained within the individual. It makes sense, then, that the solution is also contained there. But, more importantly, there seems to be a serious moral problem with the idea of brutal sacrifice, in the form of an execution, in the name of salvation.
D.T. Suzuki said, "Whenever I see the crucified figure of Christ, I cannot help thinking of the gap that lies between Christianity and Buddhism. This gap is symbolic of the psychological division separating the East from the West." The anatman of Buddhism drives Christians to distraction, but the egocentric and brutal claims of Christianity which are embodied in the idea of demanding that Jesus die for me bother Buddhists. The speculative nature of Western thought baffles the East; the non-linear nature of Eastern thought drives Westerners nuts.
But, the divide between East and West; the divide between Christianity and Buddhism, is not too great to bridge. That bridge is found in certain similarities between the Christian concept of salvation as a process (which includes Prevenient grace, Justification, and Sanctification) with a particular understanding of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment.
Just as Prevenient grace is said by the Methodists to "awaken in us an earnest longing for deliverance," enlightenment is seen by Buddhists as a kind of awakening. The Buddha, after all, can mean "awakened one." The concept of awakening, whether it is Christian or Buddhist, carries with it a notion that a big part of our problem is that we are asleep. We are dreaming. We are drifting through life without a conscious thought, without an awareness of our profound existential problem. We must be shaken from our slumber. Whether this is accomplished by the grace of God or an individual act of volition, we must awake. We must become awakened. Once we are awakened, we can become aware of our existential problem, which is fueled by our ignorance of its nature, and we can set out on the path to solving it.
Both salvation and enlightenment are processes. Sure there is, in each, a moment in which something happens. But that moment is not the only moment. And, whatever happens plays itself out in time. In time, and through time, our nature is transformed. In time and through time the conditions which gave rise to our existential problem are eliminated. This is gradual. It does not happen all at once.
Lopez says that there are two types of nirvana. "The first is called 'nirvana with remainder.' This is the nirvana that the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree, when he destroyed all the seeds for future rebirth. But the karma that had created his present life was still functioning and would do so until his death, like a watch that has been wound but will eventually stop. Thus, his mind and body during the rest of his life are what was left over, the remainder, after he realized nirvana. The second type is called the 'nirvana without remainder,' or final nirvana. This is the nirvana that the Buddha passed into upon his death." Similarly, a Christian can be saved, and even sanctified, in this life. But, such a Christian does not experience the full experience of salvation until death.
Salvation and enlightenment do not, of course, describe the same thing. Salvation depends on an act of God, and concerns a soul, or a permanent self. Enlightenment does not depend on anything external, and occurs when one has a direct experience of the truth that there is no permanent self. But, both are ways in which people attempt to address their existential problem. Both are means by which the elimination of the conditions which give rise to suffering are supposed to be achieved. Both describe spiritual processes which aim to make life happier and more meaningful.
Christianity and Buddhism are not the same. One describes a monotheistic God; the other denies the possibility, and even the value of a god. One attempts to save a permanent self; the other attempts to liberate an experiencing collection of processes from the ignorant notion that there is such a thing as a permanent self. But, both are ways in which humans have tried to deal with their existential problem. It probably cannot be known whether or not the claims of Christianity or Buddhism are in any meaningful way true. But, their claims are not so far apart. They seem to diagnose roughly the same problem, and they both offer prescriptions for that problem that many people for many, many generations have found helpful.
[note: if anyone is interested in the material that went into this, let me know and I will send you a list of some of the books used as references.]
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