By Chris Reeves
One may wonder why it is so important to devote such time and space to a study of the world’s religions. And when reading about the religions of the East, the Christian probably thinks that he will never come in contact with a practicing Buddhist. So, why should he find out anything about his beliefs? The fact is, it is very possible for us to come in contact with a Buddhist, and we have a responsibility to talk with him about his beliefs as well as our own. If we think that Buddhism (or one of the other world religions) is practiced only in some far-away country, we are mistaken. For example, do you realize that one of American’s religious denominations is called the Buddhist Churches of America? It was incorporated in 1942, its headquarters are in San Francisco, California, and there are about 250,000 members today. The challenge to learn more about our “religious” friends and neighbors is, therefore, before us. This article is intended to briefly summarize the origin, teachings, and development of modernday Buddhism. A brief contrast of Buddhism with the Bible will also be given in hopes that the reader will understand the fundamental differences between the two, and the superiority of the latter.
Buddha – The Enlightened One
Buddhism begins with a man who woke up. In his later years, people came to Buddha and inquired, “Are you a god?” He answered, “No.” “An Angel?” “No.” “A saint?” “No.” “Then who are you?” Buddha answered, “I am awake.” His answer became his title. In Sanskrit the root budh denotes “to wake up” and “to know,” thus, Buddha means “the Enlightened One” or “the Awakened One.” Buddha’s experience of “enlightenment” became the essence of his religion.
The events leading up to Buddha’s enlightenment are as follows. Buddha was born around 560 B.C. into a very wealthy family who lived in northern India. His full name was Siddhartha Gautarna of the Sakyas. He was the son of a rajah (ruler) and grew up in a life of luxury. His father protected him from all outside influences. This lifestyle gave him no satisfaction, so he decided to leave and become homeless. For the first time Siddhartha faced life’s realities. He saw the suffering of the world in three forms: a decrepit old man, and invalid racked with disease lying on the road, and a corpse. Finally, he saw a monk with a shaven head, a robe and a begging bowl. These sights taught Siddhartha that life is full of suffering and death. What he longed for now was true knowledge. So, at age twenty-nine he left his wife, son, family and home, in search for truth.
For the next six years he studied at the feet of two great Hindu masters, and even tried severe acts of asceticism at one point to find the meaning of life. However, he did not find what he was looking for in these things. It was not until he practiced a form of raja yoga (meditation) while sitting under a fig tree that he found his enlightenment and became the Buddha. He sat for a total of forty-nine days under this tree (call a Bo-tree, or “tree of enlightenment”), but it was in the first three days of his meditation that he received the knowledge that he would later teach. For the next forty-five years, Buddha would travel through India teaching his message of enlightenment and gathering his followers. He died at the age of eighty (c. 480 B.C.).
Buddha – The Reformer
Before examining the teachings of Buddha, it is important for one to realize that Buddhism was originally a religion of reaction against the perversions of Hinduism an Indian protestantism. Buddha came out of the world of Hinduism and, when he grew older, revolted against the existing Brahamanical (priest) system predominated by empty rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices. He also protested the caste supremacy of the priests and certain religious doctrines like the belief in a individual soul (atman). Buddha did not want to re-establish Hinduism in any way, he wanted to start a new religion, and that he did.
Determined to change the religion of his day, Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority (i.e., each person is to do his own religious seeking), ritual, speculation (i.e., soul, or life after cleath), tradition and the supernatural (i.e., miracles and God). In formulating his religion, however, Buddha was largely influenced by the Upanishadic sages, and the prevailing ideas of karma, reincarnation, yoga and the monastic life. In short, he accepted the best of the existing religion and rejected what he did not consider useful.
Buddha – The Teacher
When Buddha finally arose from sitting under the Bo tree, he travelled toward India’s holy city of Bernares. Before arriving in Deer Park at Sarnath, he preached his first sermon to five companions. His subject was the Four Noble Truths, which contained Buddha’s most fundamental beliefs. All that Buddha later taught would unfold from these Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth is the knowledge of suffering (dukkha). This states that all human existence from the day of one’s birth to his death is miserable and painful. The Second Noble Truth concerns the origin of suffering. Suffering has its source in desire (tanha), specifically the desire to pull apart from the rest of humanity and be an individual self. Buddha did not believe that a person had a soul (atman), nor was he an individual, but rather he was one with the rest of the world. Buddha taught that when a person desires to be an individual, suffering begins. The Third Noble Truth concerns the destruction of suffering. This is the central aim of Buddhism. It is achieved when one is freed from the endless cycle of rebirths (samsara) and when one enters the blessed state of nirvana (either before or after death). The Fourth Noble Truth points the way to the removal of suffering. This is achieved by walking the Eightfold Path to nirvana.
The Eightfold Path is as follows: (1) Right knowledge; (2) Right attitude; (3) Right speech; (4) Right action; (5) Right living; (6) Right effort; (7) Right mindfulness; and (8) Right composure. The Eightfold Path focuses on the Buddhist’s knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, his ethical conduct and mental discipline. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path were the heart of Buddha’s teaching.
The goal of one’s understanding the Four Noble Truths and walking the Eightfold Path is nirvana. Etymologically this word means “to blow out,” or “to extinguish,” and all the religious effort in Buddhism points to this end. One could sum up a Buddhist’s philosophy in one word “escape.” It is a desire for release from the karma – the law of cause and effect, and rebirth; a Buddhist searches for nirvana. The cycle of rebirths can be broken only by ceasing all desire. When this is done, one will enter nirvana. But what is nirvana? It may be described as something between annihilation and continued existence. Negatively, nirvana is the state where all desire is extinguished. Affirmatively, it is a continued existence which cannot be described. Buddha said nirvana was like the wind; it is there but you cannot show it. When asked to define nirvana, Buddha always said that he had never tried to solve this question. His mission was to show man the way of escape, not describe what he would find once he had been liberated.
Buddha lived and taught for almost fifty years after his enlightenment, but he did not write a single word of his teachings. His original teachings were handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. This continual oral tradition was not put into writing until about three centuries after his death. By this time, the religion had split into a number of schools. Each school set down the teachings of Buddha as they understood them. The oldest Buddhist writings, the Pali canon, are called the Tripitaka or “three baskets.” These “scriptures” contain stories about the life of Buddha, rules for the monastic order and Buddhist theology. They are used by the Theravada Buddhists. The Mahayana Buddhists, however, recognize many more texts as authoritative.
Soon after Buddha’s death, his followers split into many factions, and within two hundred years, two major traditions emerged. They were the strict, conservative Theravadins and the more liberal Mahayanas. The basic difference between the two was how they saw the life of Buddha and the way of salvation. The former viewed Buddha as a saint and only a monk could achieve salvation, while the latter viewed Buddha as a savior and everyone could be saved, Theravada Buddhism is the main tradition in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana Buddhism is popular in Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Nepal. After Buddhism splits into Theravada and Mahayana, Theravada holds together while Mahayana continues to divide. Mahayana divides into five sects with Zen being the most popular. Zen Buddhism came from China and developed in Japan in the twelfth century. In Zen, one reaches enlightenment (satori) through meditation (zazen) and answering riddles (koan) under the hand of a Zen master (roshi). The state of satori cannot be described; it comes abruptly, momentarily, and often more than once. Zen is now very popular in the West.
Western thinkers have been interested in Buddhism for about two-hundred years. In 1875, Buddhism was promoted in America with the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York. Buddhism also traveled to the United States via Asian immigration at the end of the nineteenth century. Today, most Buddhists are united in the Buddhist Churches of America. Their membership of 250,000 is made up of both Americans and Asians. Buddhism has about 300 million followers world-wide and continues to grow. No matter where they are or of what sect they are a part, all Buddhists have faith in the Three Jewels: Buddha, his teaching (dharma) and the religious community that he founded (sangha).
Buddha or the Bible?
There are a number of differences between the teachings of Buddha and the Bible. According to the Bible, God is a Spirit Being who is Creator and Sustainer of the universe (Gen. 1:1-3; Jn. 4:24; Acts 17:23-31). Yet, he is separate from it. Buddhism, however, denies the existence of a personal God. It says the world evolved and it operates only by natural power and law, not divine command. Thus, man is the center of all “religious” activity – there is no faith in, or worship of, God. In Zen Buddhism, God is man and man is God; all is God and God is all (pantheism). There is a certain “force” (tao) that penetrates all things, and that force is God. This kind of pantheism fr,ind in Zen was popularized in the Star Wars films.
According to the Bible, “truth” is objective (i.e., it originates outside of man). It comes from God, does not change and is contained in Scripture (Psa. 117:2; Jn. 17:17). In these last days, God has revealed his truth through the words of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:2). Jesus is the source of all spiritual truth today (Jn. 1: 17; 14:6), and only through his word can man be set free from sin (Jn. 8:31,32). In Buddhism, “truth” (englightemnent) comes subjectively through meditation. There are different forms of meditation in Buddhism and the experience of “enlightenment” differs from sect to sect.
We are told in the Bible that all responsible humans are sinners (Rom. 3:23). Sin may be a direct transgression of God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4), or a neglect of it (Jas. 4:17), but all sin is against God (Psa. 51:4; Acts 5:4), and will bring separation from God (Isa. 59:2) as well as spiritual death (Rom. 6:23). God, by his grace, sent Jesus into the world to save mankind from sin and death (Jn. 3:16). Those persons who obey his word will be saved (Heb. 5:9). Thus, we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). The Buddhist, however, is not trying to be saved from sin and its consequences, but rather from the law of karma and reincarnation. His “salvation” comes when all desire is quenched and he stops being reborn. This, too, is achieved only by one’s own effort; no outside help is necessary (a “works only” salvation).
Man is pictured in the Bible as the crown of God’s creation, being made in the image of God and having a soul (Gen. 1:26,27; 2:7). With his body, man is to serve God (Rom. 12:1; 1 Cor. 6:19,20). But in Buddhism, man is viewed as a worthless creature and life is hardly worth living. He does not have a soul and his entire existence is evil and full of suffering. The Bible, however, does not teach a pessimistic view of life. Each person is valuable (Matt. 16:26) and has a purpose in life – to serve his Creator (Eccl. 12:13). Though he may have to endure suffering in this life, he will be rewarded for his endurance (Matt. 5:11, 12; Jas. 1:24,12). And, his entire existence is not all evil. He may choose to do evil or good (Gal. 5:16-25).
The Bible tells us that those who die in harmony with God’s word will enter into heaven and there live eternally with God (Jn. 14:3); Rev. 21:3). Heaven is a place of great reward (Matt. 5:12), where there is no suffering or wickedness (Rev. 21:4,8). All the saints in heaven will exist in a new , glorified body (Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:35-49), and they will serve God forever (Rev. 22:3,5). The Buddhist, however, longs for nirvana. Nirvana is a place where desire has ceased. It is not a place of annihilation, but at the same time it cannot be described or realized by any of the senses, only by the mind.
Many other differences could be given, but these will suffice to show that Buddhism is in conflict with the Bible. We must, therefore, rationally weigh the evidence that supports the teaching of Buddhism and the Bible to see which is the truth. When this is done, one will find that the former is based upon the imagination of one man, while the latter is God’s inspired word.
Buddha or Jesus?
As the writer of the book of Hebrews showed the superiority of Christ over Judaism, it is necessary today to show the superiorty of Christ over Buddhism. This can easily be done by looking at the authority of Buddha and the authority of Jesus. What authority did Buddha have to teach his doctrine? None. Having no God, no inspired word, and no miracles to confirm the teaching, Buddhism depends wholly upon the doctrines and commandments of one man. Buddha has no real authority for saying the Eightfold Path is the way to salvation. Christ, on the other hand, said, “I am the way” (Jn. 14:6) to salvation, and he proved it by working miracles and ultimately rising from the dead. His resurrection declared him to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). and he was given all authority over everything in heaven and on earth (Eph. 1:20-22). Since he has all authority, we must listen to him rather than man.
There is no hope for the Buddhist except he believe in Jesus Christ. There is no such thing as reincarnation (cf. Heb. 9:27) and nirvana. We must show the Buddhist that “in none other is there salvation, for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “There is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Christ is all-sufficient and the hope of heaven is our only hope.
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Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 10, pp. 297-300
May 17, 1990