Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity
Buddhism - the Logical Alternative
If you have no satisfactory teacher, then take this sure Dhamma and practise it. For Dhamma is sure, and when rightly undertaken it will he to your welfare and happiness for a long time. (The Buddha)
Christianity is based upon certain supposed historical events (the
virgin birth, the resurrection, etc), the only record of which is an
allegedly reliable document called the Bible. If these events can he
shown to have never occurred, and if the documents recording these
events can he shown to he unreliable, then Christianity will collapse.
In this book we have seen that the claims are at best highly doubtful
and at worst demonstrably wrong.
When we examine the teachings of the Buddha we find an entirely
different situation. Even if we were able to prove that the Buddha
never existed or that there were mistakes in the Buddhist scriptures
this would in no way undermine Buddhism. And why? Because
Buddhism is not primarily about the historical Buddha or about
events which happened in the past; rather, it is about human
suffering, what causes that suffering, and how it can be overcome so
that humans can be free, happy and radiant. If we wish to verify or
understand Buddhism we don't pick through scriptures squabbling about the meaning of words
or phrases; rather, we become sensitive to our own experience. Let
us examine the four principles which are the doctrinal basis of
(i) When we die we are reborn
Christians believe that when people die they have only one or the
other of two possible destinies - heaven or hell. They believe that
these destinies are eternal and that one goes to one's destiny
according to God's judgement.
Buddhism teaches that when people die they can have a variety of
destinies (heaven, hell, as a human being, as an animal, etc). It
teaches that none of these destinies is eternal and that, having
finished one's time in one of these realms, one will die and pass to
another. It also teaches that one's destiny is conditioned by one's
kamma (i.e., the sum total of the good or bad that one has done
during one's life). This means that all good people, no matter what
their religion, will have a good destiny. It also means that even those
who have done evil will have a chance to become good in the next
Christians scoff at the idea of being reborn and say that there is no
evidence that such a thing happens. But the idea of rebirth is not so
different from the Christian afterlife belief - if people after death can
become angels in heaven, why can't they become humans on earth?
And as for evidence, there is certainly no evidence for the Christian
afterlife theory while there is some evidence that people can be
reborn (see Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, University
Press of Virginia, Charlotteville U.S.A., 1975).
(ii) Life is suffering
The next principle upon which Buddhism is based is the idea that
life is suffering. Although Christians accuse Buddhists of being
pessimistic for saying this, life's inherent unsatisfactoriness is in fact
confirmed by the Bible: "In the world you will have tribulation" (Jn
16:33); "Man is born to trouble as sparks fly upwards" (Job 5:7);
"All things are full of weariness" (Ecc 1:8); "the earth mourns and
withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish
together with the earth" (Is 24:4). But while both religions agree on
this point they disagree on why suffering exists.
Christianity relies on what is plainly a myth to explain the origin of
evil and suffering, claiming that they are due to Adam and Eve
having eaten an apple. Buddhism sees suffering as a psychological
phenomenon with a psychological cause - wanting, craving and
desire. And our experience tells us that this is so. When we want
something and cannot get it we feel frustration, and the stronger the
wanting the stronger the frustration. Even if we get what we want
we soon grow tired of it and begin to want something else. Even
physical suffering is caused by craving because the strong craving to
live causes us to be reborn and when we are reborn we become
subject to sickness, accidents, old age, etc. Buddhism says that even
the bliss of heaven is impermanent and imperfect, a fact confirmed
by the Bible. The Bible tells us that Satan was originally a heavenly
angel but that he rebelled against God (i.e. he was dissatisfied) and
was cast out of heaven (i.e. existence in heaven need not be eternal).
If having been in heaven one can fall from that state this proves that
heaven is not, as Christians claim, perfect and everlasting (see Is
14:12-15, II Pet 2:4, Jude 6, Rev 12:9).
(iii) Suffering can be overcome
The third principle upon which Buddhism is based is the idea that it
is possible to be free from suffering. When craving and wanting
stop, one's life becomes more content and happy, and at death one is
no longer reborn. This state of complete freedom from suffering is
called Nirvana and is described by the Buddha as being "the highest
happiness" (Dhammapada 203). Christians often mistakenly think
that Nirvana is a blank nothingness and accuse Buddhism of being
nihilistic. This misunderstanding arises because of their inability to
conceive of an afterlife more subtle than their own naive heaven - a
place "up there" (Ps 14:2, 53:2) with doors and windows (Gen 28:17,
Rev 4:1, 2 Kg 7:2, Mal 3:10), where God sits on a throne (Rev 4:2)
surrounded by Christians in beautiful gowns with crowns on their
heads playing trumpets (Rev 4:4). The Buddha categorically said that
Nirvana is not nihilistic.
When one has freed the mind, the gods cannot trace him, even though they think: "This is the consciousness attached to the enlightened one (Buddha)." And why? It is because the enlightened one is untraceable. Although I say this, there are some recluses and religious teachers who misrepresent me falsely, contrary to fact, saying: "The monk Gotama (Buddha) is a nihilist because he teaches the cutting off, the destruction, the disappearance of the existing entity." But this is exactly what I do not say. Both now and in the past, I simply teach suffering and the overcoming of suffering (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No.22).
But he also said that Nirvana is not the crude 'eternal life' as
portrayed in Christianity. It is an utterly pure and blissful state which
no conventional language can adequately describe.
Christians sometimes claim that Buddhism contradicts itself because
in wanting to attain Nirvana one is strengthening the very thing
which prevents one from attaining it. This point was raised at the
time of the Buddha and answered by one of his chief disciples, Ananda.
A priest asked Venerable Ananda: "What is the aim of living the holy life under the monk Gotama?" - "It is for the sake of abandoning desire." - "Is there a way, a practice by which to abandon this desire?" - "There is a way it is by means of the psychic powers of desire, energy, thought and consideration together with concentration and effort." - "If that is so, Venerable Ananda, then it is a task without end. Because to get rid of one desire by means of another is impossible." - "Then I will ask you a question; answer as you like. Before, did you have the desire, the energy, the thought and consideration to come to this park? And having arrived, did not that desire, that energy, that thought and that consideration cease?" - "Yes, it did."
- "Well, for one who has destroyed the defilements, once he has won enlightenment, that desire, that energy, that thought and that consideration he had for enlightenment has now ceased" (Samyutta Nikaya, Book Seven, Sutta No.15).
(iv) There is a way to overcome suffering
The last of the four principles which form the basis of Buddhism
tells us how to eliminate craving and thereby be free from suffering
both in this life and in the future. The first three principles are how
the Buddhist sees the world and the human predicament while the
last principle is what the Buddhist decides to do about it. And the
Buddhist response to suffering is to walk the Noble Eightfold Path.
This practical and universally valid system of training comprises the
development of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech,
Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and
Right Concentration. We will look briefly at each of these steps.
If we persist in believing that evil and suffering are due to
something Adam and Eve did, or that they are caused by devils, we
will never be able to overcome them. When we come to understand
that we inflict suffering upon ourselves through our ignorance and
craving, we have taken the first step in overcoming that suffering.
Knowing the true cause of a problem is the beginning of overcoming
it- And it is not sufficient to just believe - we must strive to
understand. Understanding requires intelligence, careful observation,
weighing up the facts, openness; and in trying to develop insight,
these qualities are strengthened.
Right Thought, Speech and Action
The next three steps on the Noble Eightfold Path embody
Buddhism's ethical teachings. Christians often try to give the
impression that theirs are the only ethics which revolve around
gentleness, love and forgiveness. However, the truth is that 500 years
before Jesus the Buddha taught a love-centred ethic as good as and
in some ways more complete than that of Christianity. To practise
Right Thought we must fill our minds with thoughts of love and
Develop a mind full of love, he compassionate and restrained by virtue, arouse your energy, be resolute and always firm in making progress (Theragatha 979).
When with a mind full of love one feels compassion for the whole world above, below and across, unlimited everywhere, filled with infinite kindness, complete and well-developed; any limited actions one may have done do not remain lingering in one's mind (Jataka 37,38).
Just as water cools both good and bad and washes away all dirt and dust, in the same way you should develop thoughts of love to friend and foe alike, and having reached perfection in love you will attain enlightenment (Jataka Nidanakatha 168-169).
In practising Right Speech we should use our words only in ways
which promote honesty, kindness and peace. The Buddha described
Right Speech like this.
If words have five characteristics they are well-spoken, not ill-spoken, neither blamed nor condemned by the wise, they are spoken at the right time, they are truthful, they are gentle, they are to the point, and they are motivated by love (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Fives, Sutta 198).
With a beauty and comprehensiveness typical of the Buddha he
describes the person who strives to develop Right Speech like this.
Giving up lying, one becomes a speaker of die truth, reliable, trustworthy, dependable, not a deceiver of the world. Giving up slander, one does not repeat there what is heard here, or repeat here what is heard there, for the purpose of causing divisions between people. Thus, one is a reconciler of those who are divided and a combiner of those already united, rejoicing in peace, delighting in peace, promoting peace; peace is the motive of his speech. Giving up harsh speech, one speaks what is blameless, pleasant to the ear, agreeable, going to the heart, urbane, pleasing and liked by all. Giving up useless chatter, one speaks at the right time, about the facts, to the point, about Dhamma and discipline, words worthy of being treasured up, seasonable, reasoned, clearly defined and connected to the goal (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.1).
Right Action requires that we avoid killing, stealing and sexual
misconduct and that we practise gentleness, generosity, self-control
and helpfulness towards others.
To practise Right Livelihood one will do work which is ethically
wholesome and which produces something which does not harm
society or the environment. An employer will pay his workers fairly,
treat them with respect and make sure their working conditions are
safe.' An employee on the other hand will work honestly and
diligently (see Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.31). One should also use one's
income responsibly - providing for one's needs, saving some and
giving some to charity.
Christian beliefs about God and man make human effort
inconsequential. Humans are by nature depraved and evil sinners.
How can man be righteous before God. How can he who is born of a woman he clean? (Job 24:4).
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt (Jer 17:9).
Being nothing more than a maggot (Job 25:6), humans are incapable
of being good, and can be saved not through their own efforts but
only through the grace of God. Buddhism, by contrast, sees human
nature as primarily good and in the right conditions more likely to
do good than evil (see Milindapanha 84). In Christianity humans are
held responsible for the evil they have done throughout their lives
but they are also held responsible for and likely to be punished for
the sins of Adam and Eve. In Buddhism people take responsibility
only for their own actions and, as human nature is basically good,
this means that effort, exertion and diligence are of great importance.
The Buddha says:
Abandon wrong. It can be done. If it were impossible to do, I would not urge you to do so. But since it can he done, I say to you: "Abandon wrong". If abandoning wrong brought loss and sorrow, I would not urge you to do so. But since it conduces to benefit and happiness, I urge you: "Abandon wrong."
Cultivate the good. It can be done. If it were impossible to do, I would not urge you to do so. But since it can be done, I say to you: "Cultivate the good." If cultivating the good brought loss and sorrow, I would not urge you to do so. But since it conduces to benefit and happiness, I urge you: cultivate good." (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Twos, Sutta No.9).
Right Mindfulness and Concentration
The last two steps on the Noble Eightfold Path jointly refer to
meditation, the conscious and gentle practice of firstly coming to
know the mind, then controlling it, and finally transforming it.
Although the word meditation occurs about twenty times in the
Bible, it seems to refer only to the simplistic practice of ruminating
over passages from the scriptures (e.g. Josh 1:8). The Bible seems to
be almost completely devoid of the sophisticated meditation
techniques found in the Buddhist scriptures. Consequently when
Christians are plagued by evil desires or troubled by stubborn
negative thoughts, about all they can do is pray harder. This absence
of meditation is also the reason why Christians so often appear
agitated and lacking in the quiet dignity which is characteristic of
Buddhists. God says "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10)
but Christians can't seem to sit still, let alone still their minds, for a
moment. God also says "Commune with your own heart on your
beds and be still" (Ps 4:4) which is exactly what Buddhists do when
they meditate. But Christian services and prayer meetings often seem
like a cross between a rock concert and a riot, with the pastor
shouting and wildly gesticulating while the people in the
congregation sway back and forth, 'speak in tongues', weep and clap
The great advantage of Buddhism is that it not only advises us to be
calm, peaceful, free from unruly desires and self-aware but it also
shows us how to develop these states. There are meditations to
induce calm, to modify specific mental defilements, encourage
positive mental states, and to change attitudes. And of course when
the mind is calm and free from prejudices, preconceived ideas and
distorting passions it is more likely to see things as they really are. It
is not surprising that many of the meditation techniques taught by
the Buddha are now being used by psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors.
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