Welcome to the third (and likely final) installment of a series in which I am diving into the logical comparison between some of the major world religions and Christianity. First, I examined the beliefs and roots of Islam. Then I took a good, long, hard look at Mormonism.
Next up: Buddhism
Where to begin on this one? Since Buddhism is so different from the Judeo-Christian line of thinking, there’s a lot to talk about! And being the fourth largest world religion, I think it’s definitely one we should know more about simply for the sake of a more-informed conversation.
How did it start?
Buddhism did not start until right around 550 BC, which wasn’t long before the final Old Testament book of Malachi was written. Abraham had seeded the nation of Israel many many hundreds of years before then.
Siddhartha Gautama (eventually Buddha) was a prince in the region of modern-day Nepal and heir to his father’s throne. In an effort to help him be a great king one day, his father kept him within the protected confines of the palace walls–away from pain, suffering, and general imperfection. Sounds like a great plan for helping a leader gain relevant training, right?
Thankfully, Siddhartha was granted a few field trips into reality when he was in his late 20s, and it was on these trips that he was exposed for the first time to sickness, old age, and death. These were so disturbing to the prince that when he saw a nomadic monk searching for the cure to all suffering through a rigid, ascetic life (rejection of all pleasure), Siddhartha decided to renounce his claim to the throne and live a similar lifestyle. The question that drove him was simply this: “How can one escape suffering?”
Legend has it that, after unsuccessfully studying under some of the region’s leading wise men, he sat under a tree and decided that he would either figure out the answer himself or die where he sat. The next morning, after some intense meditation, he claimed to have it realized. This state of understanding is referred to as being enlightened. It literally means “awakened” to reality and the secret of how to end suffering.
Siddhartha, now officially Buddha (meaning “awakened one”), spent a while enjoying his own enlightenment under the tree, but then set out and began teaching others his new thought process. He collected disciples quickly partly because of the compassion, joy, and servant-heartedness he and his followers displayed. More on that in a moment.
The teachings and sayings that are attributed to the Buddha were not written down until, at the earliest, just before Jesus’ birth. That’s roughly 500 years after Buddha’s death. By comparison, the texts of Christianity’s New Testament on Jesus’ teachings were being written down as early as 15-20 years after Jesus’ death (once it became clear that He wasn’t coming right back, like many initially thought). Even the latest books of the New Testament were written within about 100 years after Jesus’ death. All of these texts are contained to authors who were direct apostles of Jesus or founding fathers of the church, who were given direction from those apostles.
Siddhartha was actually married to his younger cousin when he was about 20, and they had a son together. But even then, before his so-called awakening, he was unfulfilled by the relationship and the overall institution of family, and he chose to ascribe to values that were “above” those of family, love, and relationships. My guess is that he didn’t like how his desire and love for his family sometimes led to frustration and suffering, which supports his argument that all desire leads to suffering (I’m getting to that part).
Goals and beliefs
Buddhism operates on four very basic pillars:
- To live is to suffer
- Suffering is caused by desire or attachment
- One can eliminate suffering by eliminating all attachments
- This is achieved by following the noble eightfold path, which consists of having a right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration
At its core, Buddhism is actually atheistic. Like all religions, there are many variations of Buddhist faiths. The variations within Buddhism, however, are so diverse that some even believe in one or more figurative deities. This attests to the relative nature of truth in Buddhism, but it still seems pointless to believe in a god as a Buddhist because the purpose of their life is neither to glorify the nature or works of, nor be in relationship to any deity. In its purest, most classic form, Buddhism is only self-recognizing and self-focused. In fact, the idea of the “self” as we know it, meaning our personality and soul, is considered an illusion that we must wake up from.
Just as it was for Siddhartha, the fundamental goal of a Buddhist is to escape suffering. Achievement of this goal results in reaching one of a few possible levels of enlightenment. All but the final level still results in being rebirthed and going through another lifetime on Earth. That final level of enlightenment is called nirvana, which allows its Buddha to break the cycle of rebirth and remain in a bliss that is beyond earthly understanding. The idea of nirvana literally translates to being “extinguished.” All desire and attachment, even the desire to exist, is gone. The nothingness that results is indescribable and somehow seen as perfection.
In Buddhism, the world is seen as a system that operates with a natural cause-and-effect relationship of karma. In its most basic nutshell, you get what you put out.
The world also has no beginning or end. In fact, the Buddha himself theorized (recorded 500 years after his death) that many Buddhas existed before him. All I keep wondering, though, is what the world would look like if humans have always existed. Something even beyond Dr. Suess’ “The Lorax” or Pixar’s “Wall-E” comes to mind.
Morality is a relative concept in Buddhism, meaning there is no universal truth. One person’s enlightenment could be very different from another’s, meaning it is largely subjective. To behave “badly” is not seen as evidence for why someone is in danger of being condemned (sin). It’s seen as more of a misstep that can be forgotten and avoided the next time around, as in the next life. This is why Buddhist monks live in secluded communes–to avoid any scenario where these relative missteps or distractions might be taken.
There is a fundamental problem with Buddhism: it’s self-defeating. If you followed its principles, meaning your goal in life is to become detached from all desires for yourself, you would cease to be Buddhist. With desire abandoned, how can you pursue anything, including your own enlightenment? A goal is a desire. And what else, other than the desire for good karma, would motivate someone to do good for others and be compassionate as Buddha’s followers showed? What happened to the idea of goodness and truth being relative, and reality is neither relational nor motivated by love?
In western culture, love is paramount. We are taught with values of Christian roots that love is what drives everything we do. (We have still managed to drive this motivation into the ditch because we commonly only think with a love for ourselves rather than a love for God, but I digress.)
You don’t have to connect many dots to realize that basic Buddhist teaching leads to a goal of simply not caring about anything. That’s what detaching ourselves from all desire means. To desire is to care about something. But there are basic human desires that cannot be snuffed out, no matter how many hours of meditation we endure.
We naturally desire to be known–to have community, family, friends, and confidants. We naturally desire to love and be loved–to enjoy something special and intimate with another person. We naturally desire to learn–to be stretched and given new challenges in order to grow to new levels of maturity and responsibility. I’m not so sure these are just cultural tags or simple illusions meant to be brainwashed and rid of. They’re universally planted in us by God down to our very core. They enable and give color to our ultimate purpose of living in relationship with our Creator.
I have friends who have ministered to Buddhist monks. Many of them are just teenagers, and even though they are among their religion’s elite class, they still talk about friendship. They still tell jokes and want to hear stories. They desire joy and purpose just as we all naturally do.
Buddhism is self-defeating because if you truly adopted its principles, there would be no institution of family, nurturing, friendship, or education. But these are all fundamental characteristics that define being a human. Without them, humanity would come to a screeching halt. Whatever “reality” that doesn’t include these things is simply empty space.
Karma is an interesting concept as well, especially in the context of a belief that pursues the extinction of all desire. I find it interesting that Buddha and his first disciples were known for their compassion and helpfulness for others, which is what partly attributes to the early expansion of the belief.
So in their desire to spread their belief, which stated that desire leads to suffering, they provided for other people’s desires in a simultaneous desire to receive good karma. And they accomplished these deeds, which were universally accepted as “good” by all who received them, with the belief that there is no universal truth. They somehow still possessed a knowledge of practices that were generally seen as acceptable and commendable, which earned them a universally positive reputation.
Surely I’m missing something here. There’s no way it could all seem this foolish. But then again, the Bible says the truth will seem foolish to others, and other’s wisdom will be exposed as foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18, 2:14, 3:18; Romans 1:20-25).
The teachings of Buddhism do not give any explanation to how humans came to exist, or where our nature comes from. Buddha claimed that the world and humans have always been, and life has always been stuck in this never-ending cycle of reincarnation. Science has already proven that notion to be ridiculous, but for the sake of the argument, let’s say that is true. How, then, could the population of the world have grown exponentially in the last 2,500 years? If all human life that exists now is just a later occurrence of the same human life that was around back then, where were all the extra people hiding? To make it even more confusing, the philosophy of nirvana states that individuals can break the cycle of perpetual rebirth and not return. So the human population should actually be on a slow decrease as more and more of us trickle into nirvana.
Buddhism reveals teachings that make sense only from a self-centered, secluded worldview–like, say, growing up in a palace with hardly any interaction with the real world during the formative years. The cool thing about Jesus was that, despite growing up in a backwater town, He held an understanding and authority that surpassed His humble origin. Jesus didn’t always teach what His followers wanted to hear, but what He said still makes sense and holds up with what we’ve (even recently) learned about the world.
Siddhartha Gautama is believed by scholars to have reliably existed, just like Jesus. The defining difference is that Siddhartha never claimed to be God. He only declared himself to be one who could show the way to enlightenment, which was a self-attained status focusing on the self as its own, all-powerful (and partially imagined) entity. Meanwhile, scholars inside and outside of the Christian faith cannot successfully refute the evidence that Jesus not only existed but was also killed after predicting his death as a ransom to God for our wrongdoing.
That prediction and ransom for sin part is described through the Bible, which some might argue as having no credibility. But I think it warrants consideration that Jesus’ followers were willing to be tortured and killed themselves on the simple grounds of refusing to renounce that they saw him raised from the dead. To me, that makes their careful testimonies reliable authority as well. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t die for something I didn’t believe was absolute truth. It would have to be something with earth-shattering implications for me to not be willing to even verbally deny it to save my own life.
Over and over again in my research, I saw many Buddhists talk openly about Jesus’ teachings as if they were essentially the same as what Buddhism believes. The one, brief overlapping factor was the general idea of doing good and trying to be a good and peaceful person. One Buddhist even went as far as to say that if he was a Christian but still thought like a Buddhist, he would go to heaven. What a dangerous perspective! These two beliefs could not be more opposite.
The Christian should be the first to tell you that they are NOT a “good” person and that they still wrestle with sin all the time. We don’t achieve or deserve anything relating to our perfect God. We love others and display our faith in what Jesus taught as the truthful, best way to live, but it’s not in an effort to earn anything. It’s a reaction to having already been given the solution to our imperfection.