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Buddhism and Christianity today

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Historical background

Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.) is the founder of Buddhism. He lived in nobility and wealth until he was 29 when, shortly after the birth of his son, he came to despair the meaninglessness of his life. And so he renounced his life of royalty and lived the life of a wandering seeker for some six years.

First he tried Hindu metaphysics, then adopted the life of an extreme ascetic. But neither provided the answers he was seeking. Finally Gautama admitted to himself that he was a defeated man; in this moment, he later claimed, he experienced his “enlightenment.” This caused him later to be called the “Buddha” (“the Enlightened One”). This was his experience of “nirvana” or deliverance.

Following his enlightenment, he chose to become a missionary to others. He gave seven weeks to preparation, then traveled to Sarnath, near Benares, the sacred city of the Hindus. Here he preached his first sermon and began his career of disciple-making which would last until his death in 483 B.C.

Original or “hinayana” form of Buddhism

This form of Buddhism denounces Hindu asceticism, mysticism, and speculation. Gautama’s teachings are collected as the Doctrine of the Middle Path: the Three Basic Principles, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Noble Path. This is the original form of Buddhism, known as Hinayana Buddhism, Southern Buddhism, or Theravada.

The Three Basic Principles are the following:

Anicca–nothing is permanent, including human personality.

Dukkha–sorrow is implicit in all life and experience.

Its source is our desire, clinging to the illusion of individual existence.

We cannot gain what we want, and we cannot escape what we dislike. This condition produces the inner frustration and external conflict which create misery and suffering.

Anatta–the doctrine of “no soul,” a focal concept of Buddhism. We are made of five aggregates:

  • Physical body
  • Sensations
  • Perception (ideas)
  • Consciousness
  • Thought.

These are held together by an intangible “thread of life.” At “death” the five aggregates (“skandas”) separate from each other. They never come together again in the same combination, although each individual skanda will unite with four other skandas to create a new human life. Thus there is no unique soul dwelling in or as a body. This endless cycle is called Paticca-samuppada.

Buddhism therefore also rejects the Hindu concept of reincarnation. There is the rebirth of skandas in ever-differing combinations (karma), but no migration of a soul-entity from one body or likeness to another. Final salvation (nirvana) comes when none of the component skandas ever again unites with others to form a new life.

The Four Noble Truths are the following:

  • All suffering is inevitable.
  • The origin of suffering is desire and craving–especially the desire for separate, individual, everlasting existence.
  • The extinction of suffering is achieved through the elimination of all desire.
  • The way to the destruction of all desire is the Eightfold Noble Path.

The Eightfold Noble Path (Magga):

  • Right understanding
  • Right thoughts
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right meditation
  • Right concentration

This Path is believed to break the fetters that bind us to life, and thus to suffering. When these fetters are all broken, we achieve nirvana.

The development of the “Sangha” (congregations) of monks:

These are not priests or intermediaries between god and humans, but rather persons who have given themselves totally to the Eightfold Noble Path. This kind of total commitment is necessary to achieve enlightenment. Thus the Hinayana way (“little vehicle,” or “few they be who are saved”).

The Hinayana canon: the Tipataka (“three baskets”), written in Ceylon in the Pali language about 25 B.C. The “Teaching Basket” contains the alleged teachings of Gautama; the other two “baskets” contain rules for monks and psychological principles.

Zen: a variation of Hinayana

This variation appeared in China in the 6th century and has grown widely since the 13th century, and is especially popular in Japan. It teaches concentrated contemplation, by which adherents hope to achieve enlightenment (santori). It also stresses immediacy, with little emphasis on logic, words, or letters

Zen emphasizes the possibility of enlightenment here and now and uses simple beauty as an object of meditation, in seeking to be enlightened.

Mahayana form of Buddhism (from the north: “Mahayana” means “large” or “wide is the gate and all may pass through it”). This group split from the Hanayana about one hundred years after Buddha’s death.

Almost infinite in variety

Modifies Buddhism so as to open it to all persons, as opposed to the strict monastic lifestyle of those seeking enlightenment through the Hinayana approach

Is today the principal form of Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan

No canonical scripture; its classic document is the Lotus Sutra (“Lotus of the Good Law”)

Emphasizes heavily the Bodhasittvas (“wisdom beings”); these persons are on their way to final enlightenment, but delay for the purpose of helping others until all are enlightened; can appear as an apparition or in a ghost-like body

Has developed highly ornate religious symbols and buildings

Is Buddhism for the masses, with much lower spiritual and moral standards than the Hinayana

One example: Japanese Mahayana Buddhism, from China by way of Korea five centuries after Christ; one popular form involves a Bodhisatva whose features are seen all over Japan; she is the compassionate Kannon, with a female form said to be modeled on a 8th century empress of China.

In America, the three most popular forms of Buddhism are the following:

Zen

Soka Gakkai, called Nichiren Shoshu in America. This 13th century zealous Japanese leader taught chanting and immediate spiritual experience; his movement has grown from a few thousand in 1945 to 20 million worldwide, and is especially popular in the United States.

Pure Land–looks back to a Bodhisattva named Amitabha, or Amida Buddha, who long ago accumulated such a vast store of merit during his progress toward salvation that he vowed to bestow on all who trusted in him an assured rebirth; the only requirements are perfect faith and sincerity and simply repeating, “Hail Amida-Buddha.” This movement, popular in Hawaii, asserts the reality of a life after death, thus the necessity of a self or soul.

Ultimate reality: “dynamic atheistic void” (Woodfin 155)

Ultimate reality is understood from within the Hindu’s Brahmanistic perspective, but is in a constant state of change and process; any questions about the beginning and end of the world and time are mere idle speculations.

The Buddha discouraged his followers from deifying him; now, however, the Hinayana Buddhists have deified the very one who denied the existence of God.

One such prayer:

“Oh, thou, the Buddha, the supremely awakened one, the most honored one, here are we gathered in thy presence with deepest reverence and adoration in our hearts. We place our whole trust in thee, in thy teaching and in thy order, and we do earnestly resolve to be good Buddhists, and follow the holy path thou has shown us, so that we may, like thyself, attain the happiest and the most peaceful realm of Nirvana” (Young Buddhist Handbook [Bureau of Buddhist Education: Buddhist Churches of America, 1966] 53-54; quoted in Woodfin 155-6).

View of humanity: “anatta” (there is no self)

Nothing can be called the self in the sense of an unchanging, abiding substance or being.

Man or woman is but the name given to the place where the different parts of existence flow together.

Central focus: “dukkha” (life is suffering, due to desire)

Suffering is dukkha–the concepts of pain and sorrow and also the ideas of impermanence or lack of wholeness.

Chanda–legitimate desire; for example, when one walks down the street and desires to put one foot before the other.

Tanha–desire coupled with anxiety, greed, fear, envy, or anger.

Concept of salvation: the renunciation of all anxious desire

Includes even the desire for that which is good for ourselves.

Supreme example is the Buddha, who postponed his own nirvana experience so that he might show others the way to enlightenment.

Ultimate destiny: “Nirvana” (the obliteration of all individual consciousness, especially all conscious desire)

The Buddha’s claim:

“Nibbana have I realized, and gazed into the mirror of the Dhamma, the Noble Truth, I am healed of my wound; Down is my burden laid; My task is done;

My heart is utterly set free” (Theragatha, canto X; quoted in Woodfin 159).

He described this experience for his monks as follows:

“Monks, there exists that condition wherein is neither earth or water nor fire nor air: wherein is neither the sphere of infinite space nor of infinite consciousness nor of nothingness nor of neither-consciousness-nor-unconsciousness; where there is neither this world nor a world beyond nor both together nor moon-and-sun. Thence, monks, I declare is no coming to birth; thither is no going [from life]; therein is no duration; thence is no falling; there is no arising. It is not something fixed, it moves not on, it is not based on anything. That is indeed the end of all” (Udana 80, quoted in Woodfin 159).

Nirvana is thus nothing like our heaven; it is a “psychological condition of peace in which the self-asserting ego has been annihilated and one is liberated from those cravings which make human existence a self-defeating circle of assertion and anxiety”; it is “a realm of meaninglessness and personal oblivion” (Woodfin 159).

It is an event, not a personal experience. It is the breaking of the endless round of rebirths into conscious existence which Hinduism teaches.

Most modern Buddhist groups teach that this state can be achieved in our earthly existence. “Parinirvana” is a higher state which can be reached only after we die. For the Buddhist, this is the ultimate, eternal end.

Buddhism today

Over 300 million profess to be Buddhists in one tradition or another. In Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, the population is almost exclusively Hinayana Buddhist. The entire population of Tibet and Mongolia is Buddhist, of a form peculiar to that region alone (“Vajrayana”). There are Buddhist groups in every country of the world.

In recent decades Buddhism has been undergoing a dramatic revival, working in missionary activity as it has not done in many centuries. Note that the dominant religion of Hawaii is Buddhism; this is the first time that any religion outside of the Judaeo-Christian tradition has dominated in any state in America.

Examples:

In 1950 the two major divisions of Buddhism (Theravada [Hinayana] and Mahayana) united into the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

Buddhists of Sri Lanka have developed a Missionary Training College where Buddhist monks spend five years in training for missionary work among the English-speaking and Hindu peoples of the world. Here funds are solicited for the spread of Buddhism among “the heathen of Europe.”

The Shin sect in Japan alone maintains 150 missionaries on the American continent.

Reasons for appeal to the West today

Buddhism addresses the problem of suffering, and promises peace of mind and heart. It is compatible with current existentialist philosophy and psychoanalysis; offers a “self-made” way to achieve personal enlightenment.

It offers an ascetic spirituality which contrasts well with the dominant materialism of western culture.