As Christianity decreases in influence in America, other pagan religions are becoming more influential. One such is Buddhism. Two web sources, The Christian Science Monitor and Wikipedia, agree that Buddhism is America’s fourth largest “belief-set” (after Christianity, Judaism, and those professing no religion), with over 1.5 million adherents.
Whether Buddhism can properly be called a religion is a question: “Buddhism is so different from other religions that some people question whether it is a religion at all. For example, the central focus of most religions is God, or gods. But Buddhism is non-theistic. The Buddha taught that believing in gods was not useful for those seeking to realize enlightenment.”
So what are the main teachings of Buddhism? How is it different from Christianity? And what would be an appropriate response by Christians to Buddhists?
Buddhism originated with Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, the “Enlightened One,” who was born about 563 BC in what is now Nepal. Various factors in his life made him decide that life was full of suffering, and that no one had yet found the way to true happiness. So he devoted his life to finding the cause of suffering, and the way to be rid of suffering. He thought he found his answer in “the Middle Way,” a way of living that avoids indulging oneself and depriving oneself. The heart of Buddhism is to understand and practice this Middle Way. Buddhism is a way of living: “Most religions are defined by their beliefs. But in Buddhism, merely believing in doctrines is beside the point. The Buddha said that we should not accept doctrines just because we read them in scripture or are taught them by priests. Instead of teaching doctrines to be memorized and believed, the Buddha taught how we can realize truth for ourselves.” (See endnote 2 for the source.)
Buddhism is based on four principles called the Four Noble Truths:
The Four Noble Truths
- Life consists of suffering.
- Suffering is due to our desire for things which are not permanent (earthly possessions, food, fame, etc).
- When one is enlightened, he no longer desires these things, and his suffering ends.
- The Middle Path sets forth the way to enlightenment.
The Middle Path consists of eight steps—two dealing with wisdom, three with ethical conduct, and three with mental discipline:
The Middle Path
- Right Understanding (knowing the four noble truths, and rejecting wrong ideas about the cause and cure of suffering).
- Right Thought (freeing our mind of all evil desires, and concentrating on the Middle Path).
- Right Speech (speaking well of others, and refraining from slander and gossip).
- Right Action (do not kill men or animals; do not steal; do not lie; do not drink intoxicants; do not be sexually unchaste).
- Right Livelihood (in his work, a Buddhist must be productive and helpful to others; he may not be a butcher or brewer, for to kill animals and drink intoxicants is wrong).
- Right Effort (trying to overcome evil, and developing one’s powers of thinking).
- Right Awareness (understand things as they really are, and be aware of minute details in one’s life, such as one’s breathing and the moment one falls asleep).
- Right Meditation (meditate on a particular object until one is free from distractions and the feeling of suffering, and becomes enlightened).
Some mistakenly suppose that Buddhism has much in common with Christianity, because both religions recognize suffering, set forth a way of deliverance, and require an ethically moral life.
I hope it is clear to you though, that Buddhism and Christianity are quite different.
Buddhism finds the cause of suffering in our desire for earthly things. God teaches that suffering is caused by sin. While God forbids us to covet earthly things, He does not teach it is wrong to desire them in proper amount, and for a proper use; we express such a desire, when we pray for our daily bread.
Buddhism teaches that one escapes suffering by following the Middle Path. The Christian confesses that one escapes suffering God’s wrath, because Jesus Christ suffered that wrath for us. We hope for our own complete deliverance from suffering in the way of our death and resurrection. We know that we will suffer in this life; yet in the midst of our suffering we find comfort, hope, and joy, in Jesus Christ (read again the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism).
Buddhism teaches that one can find this escape by oneself: think hard enough, concentrate long enough, and you will escape suffering! This is salvation by works. Christianity is emphatic that salvation is only by God’s grace, and that our works are the fruit of salvation, not a way to be saved.
The Buddha taught that gods exist, but they are merely spirits who also must know the Four Noble Truths and follow the Middle Path to attain enlightenment; they are not to be worshiped. Christians confess one eternal, sovereign, Triune God who is to be worshiped.
That Jesus Christ lived on earth, Buddhists would not deny; but that he is God, and earned salvation for us, they deny. Jesus is just a man who may himself have become enlightened.
One thing the two religions have in common—both teach that their way of salvation is the only right way. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” said Jesus (John 14:6); and of him Peter said, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Buddhism claims that its Middle Path is the only way. That they have this in common simply underscores that Buddhism is unChristian and antiChristian.
Perhaps the following suggestions will be helpful, should you discuss your faith with a Buddhist.
First, realize that Buddhists are spiritually blind to saving truth (as were we). We must pray that God will open their eyes, and use us to that end, if he pleases. But we also know that he hardens some, rather than opening their eyes to the truth.
Second, ask the individual to state his faith for you. In response, point out that the Bible gives a different cause for suffering than does Buddhism, and so also a different solution. If you have several conversations with a Buddhist, you will have time to look up specific passages which can help you.
Third, use the Bible unashamedly! If he will not submit to the authority of the Bible, then any substantive conversation about religion is over. The Bible is your sword, and is authoritative for use in this situation (II Timothy 3:16).
Fourth, be careful to explain Christian concepts. Buddhists use terms such as “salvation,” “regeneration,” and “meditation”; but they give those terms a vastly different meaning than do we. Don’t assume that because they are familiar with the word, they understand it as we do.
Finally, live your faith! Be open in confessing that you find forgiveness for your sins in Christ (the Buddhist, though emphasizing the need to live a morally upright life, knows nothing of forgiveness), and that you find in Christ the power to obey God.
Especially, live your faith consistently when you suffer! Scripture often commands us to contentment and joy in suffering (Philippians 4:11; James 1:2; I Peter 2:19ff, 4:12ff). Should the Buddhist notice that, rather than complaining about our suffering, or trying to eliminate it, we manifest joy in it, he might realize that our faith has a solution to suffering which is deeper than his, and requires of us a power which he does not have, but (if God so works in him) which he desires.