Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity

Chapter 7:
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 Buddhism.

(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 life.

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.

Right Understanding

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 compassion.

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.

Right Livelihood

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.

Right Effort

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 their hands.

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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