Christianity and Buddhism don’t belong together

Christianity and Buddhism don’t belong together.  Just over fifty years ago, the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, made a pilgrimage to India to meet the Tibetan Buddhist, Chongyam Trungpa, in the hope of fostering an interfaith dialog between Christianity and Buddhism.  The dialog has flourished.  Buddhist-Christian Studies is an established journal, and interfaith conferences abound.  Curiously, a number of believers have chosen to combine their faiths.  Paul Knitter’s Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian explains why this combination works for him; evidently it does for many.

This makes no sense to me.  Christianity and Buddhism are so fundamentally different that even the question of dialog makes me wonder.  Not about the desirability of people of different faiths talking with each other; that’s always a good thing.  But about attempts to show similarities: Jesus was like a bodhisattva (a Buddhist holy man), or that the experience of prajna, or enlightenment, corresponds to the Christian experience of God.  The only work I know of that even questions their commensurability is in an essay of that title, “Are Buddhism and Christianity Commensurable?”  Remember that commensurable means not similar, but alike enough even to be fruitfully compared.  The essay in Wikipedia, “Buddhism and Christianity,” is as good as anything I have read on this subject, primarily because it displays their vast differences.

What Buddhism asserts that Christians don’t believe

Buddhism is a teaching or practice that disbelieves in edges and boundaries.  All is flow, and everything is ultimately one.  Individuality is an illusion; we are all part of the oneness of the universe.  The goal is to overcome the illusion of individuality—that is, of being a unique and separate being.  The goal is to become anatta, which means no-self.  Buddhism is a teaching of non-attachment: to things, and to people.  “Don’t cling” is its motto, though I particularly like the afterthought of some Buddhists, “and don’t cling to not clinging.”

I practiced for a short while at a Buddhist temple in Seoul, Korea, whose head sunim, or monk, was sent to direct another temple.  Through tears her assistant told me how angry she was with herself because she missed the sunim so much.  Good Buddhists do not become attached.  Hence the clever Zen saying “Kill the Buddha!”  That is, don’t become attached even to the words of the Buddha.  Incidentally, Korean Buddhism comes closer to Zen Buddhism than any other.

The Universe itself is the scripture of Zen, for which religion is no more and no less than the apprehension of the infinite in every moment.  How wondrous, how      mysterious!  I carry fuel, I draw water.  (Matthiessen, p 31)

For Buddhists, time is circular, with no beginning and no ending.  This is the opposite of Judeo-Christian belief that while God is eternal, we live in linear time, with a beginning and end, what some call the Second Coming or Parousia. 

For Buddhists,

I am everywhere and in everything.  I am the sun and stars, I am time and space, and I am He.  When I am everywhere, where can I move? When there is no past and no future, and I am eternal existence, then where is time? (Matthiessen, p 61)

In Buddhism God is not so much displaced as dispersed among everything thing and no-thing in the universe.  One can say exactly the same thing about the individual.  He or she only appears to be separate and distinct.  Instead, we are one, part of the eternal flow.

Contrast with Christianity

Recall the question posed by God to Job.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.

On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”  (Job 38:4,7)

God’s point is that humanity had nothing to do with the earth’s creation; furthermore, the earth was not created for man alone.  Job should shut up and accept what he has been given, a wondrous but often painful world.  Job gets it, and does (Job 42:1-6).

Peter Matthiessen, a Buddhist and a Christian, interprets the verse quite differently, saying

“I was there! [when the earth was created].  Surely that is the answer to God’s question.”  For no matter how the universe came into being, most of the atoms in these fleeting assemblies that we think of as our bodies have been there since the beginning.  What the Buddha perceived was his identity with the Universe; to experience existence in this way is to be the Buddha. (p 61)

The Buddhist view is simply incompatible with the Christian view.  For Christians, God created the universe we inhabit.  For Buddhists, we are one with this universe, and have been since its creation. 

            Christian Buddhism?

Paul Knitter, a former priest, complains that “Christian dualism has so exaggerated the difference between God and the world that it cannot really show how the two form a unity.” (p7)  But why should there be a unity?  Why shouldn’t God be utterly other?  The relationship that Knitter wants

has to be a relationship of authentic mutuality, one in which I exercise genuine responsibility, which means a relationship in which I make a difference for and can really affect the Divine. I feel it has to be not just God’s show but our show.  (p26)

Well, I just don’t get it.  God can’t be the transcendent other because I want to be part of the show?  Because I want God to need me?  Imagine God’s response if Job had said “and I want this creation of yours to be our show.”  If God is the captain of my ship, asks Knitter, can I ever be more than a crew-member? (p 27)  No, you can’t even be first-mate.

The problem isn’t Buddhism.  Buddhism is its own solution to the problem of the pain of existence (duhkha).  But this isn’t the problem Christianity is trying to solve.  The problem for Christianity, to put it as simply as possible, is the meaning of our existence in a seemingly futile world.  Combining the two faiths diminishes both.

What does it make sense to ask of God?  That he be present to me and others who are in need.  This requires that we be open to his presence.  Most of us are so closed, so distracted, so angry, so busy, so hurt, that we never give God the time or place to let his presence be felt in our lives.  ‘By the grace of God may I slow down and open myself to the experience of God, an experience that will come in its own time, and in its own way.’  Right now, I can’t think of a better prayer.

      Individual a creation of Judeo-Christian tradition

Consider both the Old and New Testaments.  The Old Testament is filled with strong characters, such as Moses, Abraham, and Job.  God himself is a strong character, frequently becoming angry with his people, and sometimes repenting his anger (Exodus 32:14).  In the New Testament, Jesus is the leading character, but it is up to each individual to live in accord with the teachings of Christ.  Each individual will be judged, and even in death each will retain something like his or her original body (1 Corinthians 15:42).

Contrary to Buddhism, I think the creation of an on-going, bounded self, possessed of self-awareness, is a great achievement.  Most consider this concept of the self as the creation of the Enlightenment (1685-1815).  But, perhaps the Enlightenment was just playing catch-up with the Judeo-Christian tradition, which assumes each individual is a responsible being of infinite worth.  Today we are living off the conceptual capital of the Judeo-Christian tradition, particularly as it is expressed in the Enlightenment.  But our tradition will not last much longer without a reawakening of its origins. 

Conclusion

Buddhism comforts many.  Buddhism teaches compassion (karuna) for all living things.  I don’t even know that Buddhism is wrong.  Maybe right and wrong are not the proper categories.  But I do know that Buddhism and Christianity are incommensurable, and that it does neither a favor to play down the differences.

Neither is it fruitful to argue, as some do, that Jesus was a Buddhist.  The argument follows two lines.  First, that Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan trading hub, in which travelers from India may have spread Buddhist doctrine.  Second, during the lost years of Jesus (between his youth and his baptism, about which we know nothing), he could have traveled to Kashmir to study Buddhism.  But even the author of this claim states that the evidence is “apocryphal”—that is, of doubtful authenticity (Hanson, p 75).  There is simply no evidence that Jesus was influenced by Buddhism.  No historical evidence, and nothing in his teachings. 

In 2001, the Dalai Lama stated that “Jesus Christ also lived previous lives,” adding “So, you see, he reached a high state, either as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened person, through Buddhist practice or something like that.” (Beverley)  Certainly there is a great desire among a number of people to bring Christ and Buddha closer together.  But isn’t it enough that both teach compassion, and so make their followers better people? 

References

James Beverley, “Hollywood’s Idol,” Christianity Today, vol. 45, no 8, 2001.  

James M. Hanson, “Was Jesus a Buddhist?” Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 25 (2005), pp. 75-89.

Paul Knitter, Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.  Oneworld, 2009.

Paul Knitter and Peter Feldmeier, “Are Buddhism and Christianity Commensurable.”  Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 36 (2016), pp. 165-184.

Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard.  Penguin Books, 1978.

11 thoughts on “Christianity and Buddhism don’t belong together”

  1. Many interesting thoughts here, thank you. I find it interesting that both teachings lay emphasis on a need for human beings to relate to one another in a way that goes beyond mere ‘tolerance’. In that sense they both represent a major step away from tribalism, although these teachings are still far from gaining universal acceptance.

    1. I am pleased I saw Mike’s comment as I had not thought about tribalism and religion.I enjoy all the different ideas
      Katherine

  2. I was amused by your comments about Paul Knitter.Thank you for a very clear analysis of the differences between the two religions
    Does Buddhism almost want us to be like we were as babies at the breast feeling one with mother and full of imagined power?
    Christianity might be a a bit like trying to relate to someone else though we can’t relate to God as we might to another human being
    And we don’t seem very good at that, with war at one end and family
    torments at the other.How we can hate the ones we are brought up to
    feel we should love.
    I do feel God can show us love but we are too active and also find it hard to accept pain.But sometimes mental pain can slow us into stopping the mania we inhabit… but how can words express this? We learn alot before we acquire language….

  3. Katherine, I think you’ve used words about as well as they can be to express these thoughts. Fred

  4. “Kill the Buddha” is a portion of a statement by a Chinese great master of Chan (Zen). If you come across (a) demon, kill the demon; if you come across (a) Buddha, kill the Buddha. It has nothing to do with “anti clinging”. The said venerable emulated the Zen course set up by Shakyamuni Himself. At the third step of Zen learning, learners used to see either mara (ghosts, demons) or Buddhas. Seeing mara because of your heavy karma; don’t be discouraged and don’t say that the Law is that of demons; forget demons. Seeing Buddhas because of your acute desire, acute longing for the final enlightenment; it’s not the attainment yet; forget it and continue.

    1. OK, this helps make sense of “kill the Buddha” for me. I have great respect for Buddhism. I just don’t understand why some Christians want to combine them. Fred

  5. I agree with you. the problem is, the people practicing Christianity and Buddhism do not. I thank people like thich naht hahn for setting the ball rolling for this (terrible) movement. All i can do is tell others how i feel, but ultimately, the decision is not mine to make.

    1. Yes, Brianna, we must judge for ourselves. We can talk with others, write about our beliefs, but the views of others with whom we disagree must be respected (unless of course they have awful views, and Buddhism is far from awful). Regards, Fred

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