Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity
How to answer the Evangelists
Nirvana is an impractical goal because it takes so long to
attain and so few can do it
It is true that attaining Nirvana may take a long time but on the
other hand rebirth gives us plenty of time. If one does not do it in
this life one can continue striving in the next life. In fact, it will take
as long as one wants. The Buddha says that if one really wants, one
can attain Nirvana within seven days (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta
No.10). If this is so, the Christian will ask, why haven't all Buddhists
already attained Nirvana? For the simple reason that mundane
phenomena still hold an attraction for them. As insight and
understanding gradually make-that attraction fade one moves step by
step, at one's own pace, towards Nirvana. As for the claim that only
a few people can attain Nirvana, this is not correct. While in
Christianity a person has one and only one chance of being saved,
Buddhism's teachings on rebirth mean that a person has an infinite
number of opportunities to attain Nirvana. This also implies that
everyone will eventually be liberated. As the Buddhist text says:
This immortal state has been attained by many and can be
still attained even today by anyone who makes an effort. But not by
those who do not strive (Therigatha, verse 513).
In Christianity, history has a meaning and is moving towards
a particular goal. Buddhism's cyclic view of existence means that
history has no meaning and this makes Buddhists fatalistic and
It is true that according to Buddhism history is not moving towards
any climax. But the person who is walking the Noble Eightfold Path
certainly is. He or she is resolutely moving towards the peace and
freedom of Nirvana.
Just as the river Ganges flows, slides, tends towards the east, so does one who cultivates and makes much of the Noble
Eightfold Path flows, slides, tends towards Nirvana (Samyutta Nikaya, Great Chapter, Sutta No.67)
So it is not true to say that Buddhism's more realistic view of
existence and of history necessarily leads to indifference. And what
climax is history moving towards according to Christianity? The
Apocalypse, where the vast majority of humanity and all the works
of man will be consumed by brimstone and fire. Even the lucky few
who are saved will have the gloomy prospect of an eternity in
heaven knowing that at least some of their family and friends are, at
the same time, being punished in hell. It would be difficult to
imagine a more depressing future to look forward to than this.
The Buddha copied the idea of kamma and rebirth from Hinduism
Hinduism does teach a doctrine of kamma and also reincarnation.
However, their versions of both these teachings are very different
from the Buddhist versions. For example, Hinduism says we are
determined by our kamma while Buddhism says it only conditions
us. According to Hinduism an eternal soul (atman) passes from one
life to the next while Buddhism denies that there is such a soul
(anatman) saying rather that it is a constantly changing stream of
mental energy which is reborn. These are just two of many
differences between Hinduism and Buddhism on kamma and rebirth.
However, even if the Buddhist and Hindu teachings were identical
this would not necessarily mean that the Buddha unthinkingly copied
the ideas of others. It sometimes happens that two people, quite
independently of each other, make exactly the same discovery. A
good example of this is the discovery of evolution. In 1858, just
before he published his famous book The Origin of the Species,
Charles Darwin found that another man, Alfred Russell Wallace, had
conceived the idea of evolution exactly as he had done. Darwin and
Wallace had not copied each other's ideas; rather, by studying the
same phenomena they had come to the same conclusion about them
quite independently of each other. So even if Hindu ideas about
kamma and rebirth were identical to those of Buddhism (which they
are not) this would still not be proof of copying. The truth is that
Hindu sages, through insights they developed in meditation, got
vague ideas about kamma and rebirth, which the Buddha later
expounded more fully and accurately.
Jesus forgives our sins, but Buddhism says you can never
escape the consequences of your kamma
It is only partially true that Jesus forgives sins. According to
Christianity, after people are created they will live forever - first for
a few decades on earth and then for eternity in either heaven or hell.
Jesus will forgive people's sins while they live in the world but for
the rest of eternity he will refuse to do so, no matter how frequently
or how pitifully the souls in hell may call upon his name. So Jesus'
forgiveness is limited to a minute period of time in a person's
existence after which he will withhold it. So most people will never
escape from the consequences of their supposed sin.
Can Buddhists escape from their kamma? The doctrine of kamma
teaches that every action (kamma) has an effect (vipaka). However
this effect is not always equal to its cause. For example, if a person
steals something this act will have a negative effect. If however after
the theft the person feels remorse, returns the stolen article, and
sincerely resolves to try to be more careful in the future, the negative
effect of the theft may be mitigated. There would still be an effect
although not as strong. But even if the thief does not mitigate the
wrong which has been done with some good, he or she will be free
from the deed after its effect comes to fruition. So according to
Buddhism we can be free from our kamma while according to
Christianity our sins will only be forgiven during an extremely
limited period of time.
There are other ways in which the doctrine of kamma is better than
the Christian ideas of forgiveness and punishment. In Buddhism
while one may have to endure the negative effects of the evil one
has done (which is only fair) this means that one will experience the
positive effects of the good one has done as well. This is not so in
Christianity. For example, a non-Christian may be honest, merciful,
generous and kind, yet despite this at death this person will go to hell
and not receive any reward for the good he or she has done.
Furthermore, according to the doctrine of kamma the effects we
experience, all things being equal, are in direct proportion to their
cause. Again this is not so in Christianity - even if a person is
exceptionally evil during this life, eternal hell is an utterly
disproportionate punishment. How much more is this so if the person
is virtuous but non-Christian? Indeed the eternity of hell, and the
idea that all non-Christians are condemned to it, are teachings which
cast very serious doubts on the concept of a just and loving God.
Christianity has spread to almost every country in the world and has
more followers than any other religion, so it must be true
It is true that Christianity has spread widely but how has this
happened? Until the 15th century Christianity was largely confined
to Europe. After this, European armies spread throughout the world
forcing their religion on the people they conquered. In most
conquered countries (e.g. Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Taiwan and
parts of India) laws were passed banning all non-Christian religions.
By the late 19th century brute force was no longer used to enforce
belief but, under the influence of the missionaries, colonial
administrators tried to hinder non-Christian religions as much as
possible. Today the spread of Christianity is supported by lavish
financial assistance which missionaries get largely from the U.S.A.
So Christianity has spread not because of its inherent superiority but
because of violence in the past and wealth today.
Whether Christianity is the world's largest religion is a matter of
definition. Can we consider the Mormons, the Moonies and the
Jehovah's Witnesses to be Christians? Can we consider the numerous
strange cults and sects which flourish in South America and Africa,
and which account for many millions of people, to be Christian?
Most Protestants don't even consider Catholics to be Christians! If
we deny that all the heretical, heterodoxist, cultic and bizarre
Christian groups are 'real' Christians, this would probably make
Christianity one of the smallest religions in the world. This would
also explain why the Bible says that only 144,000 people will be
saved on Judgement Day (Rev 14:3-4).
However even if Christianity was the world's largest religion what
would this prove ? In the recent past almost every one believed that
the world was flat, and they were all wrong. Whether or not an idea
is true has nothing to do with how many people believe it.
Of all the arguments that Christians use to try to convert people this
is by far the most foolish. Firstly if what the Bible says about wealth
is true (Matt 19:23-24) it would seem that the blessings which God
has supposedly poured out on Europe and America are really a curse
in disguise. Secondly if prosperity is really proof of God's favour it
would seem that he really likes the Muslims because he has given
them all the oil. Thirdly, some Christian countries like Honduras and
the Philippines are extremely poor while Japan, predominantly a
Buddhist country, is very rich. And finally, by making statements
like this Christians are letting slip their real motive for worshipping
God - desire for money. Buddhism for its part teaches that qualities
like contentment, love, gentleness and inner peace are more precious
Throughout the world including Asia, Christianity has been a
force for progress while Buddhism has done little to improve
In Christianity's long history there is much to be proud of and
perhaps equally as much to be ashamed of. Take for example
slavery, a terrible institution which almost all churches supported
until the 19th century. After Paul converted the runaway slave
Oresimus he convinced him that as a Christian he should go back to
his master, but he never tried to convince the master to free his slave
(Philemon I: 3-20). Christian slaves were asked to stay bound to
their masters, and Christian slave owners were under no obligation to
free their slaves. The Bible says that slaves should obey their masters
even if they are treated with cruelty.
Slaves be submissive to your masters with all respect, not
only the gentle but also the cruel. For one is approved if
mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For
what credit is it if when you do wrong and are beaten for it
you take it patiently. But when you do right and suffer for it
you take it patiently you have God's approval (1 Pet 2:18-20).
Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and give
satisfaction in every respect; they are not to be refractory, nor
to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity so that in
everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our saviour (Tit 2:9-10).
So according to Christianity a slave should look to his oppressor as
if he was God, and should consider it better to be beaten for doing
right than for doing wrong. Such teachings where of course eagerly
welcomed by the slave-owners. Take science. The development of science in the West was retarded
by church opposition (see A History of the Warfare of Science
with Theology in Christendom, 2 Vol, A.D.White, 1960).
Christian opposition to dissection of corpses held back the
development of medicine and anatomy for 300 years. The churches
were against dissection because they believed that it would make
bodily resurrection impossible. The church was opposed to the
heliocentric view of the universe and even threatened to execute
Galileo for saying that the earth moved around the sun. When
Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod which prevented
buildings from being damaged by lightning, Protestant churches were
in an uproar. They believed that God would no longer be able to
punish sinners by hurling thunder bolts. When chloroform was
invented the churches refused to allow it to be used to alleviate the
pain of childbirth. The Bible teaches and they believed that such
pain was God's punishment on women for the sin of Eve (Gen 3:16).
Take intolerance of the Jews. Of all the bleak pages in the history of
Christianity this is the bleakest and most disgraceful. For 2000 years
Christians have harassed, hounded, humiliated and murdered the
Jews because they refused to believe in Jesus. And in this respect
Protestants have been no better than the Catholics. In 1986 a leading
Protestant clergyman in the U.S.A. said "God does not listen when
the Jews pray".
We could go on but this is enough. However since the 19th century
it is true that many Christian churches have begun to eagerly adopt
the outlook of the liberal secular tradition and make it their own. So
now Christians are often in the forefront of movements for justice,
democracy and equality. But there is little in the Bible that they can
use to justify their actions. On the contrary, the Bible specifically
says that all rulers, even the unjust, get their power from God and to
oppose them is to oppose God.
Let every' person be subject to the governing authorities. For
there is no authority except from God, and those that exist
have been instituted by God. Therefore lie who resists the
authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who
resist will incur judgement (Rom 13:1-2, see also Jn 19:11, Tit 3:1, Pet 2:13, Prov 8:15-16, 16:10).
Despotic kings, cardinals and bishops quoted passages like
these for centuries to justify their rule. Liberation theologians
are very silent about such Bible passages today. Christian
social philosophy doesn't come from the Bible, it conies from
the Western secular tradition which the churches spent 400
years opposing. Now they try to pretend that these values
originate from Jesus (see What the Bible Realty Says, ed. M. Smith and R. S. Hoffman, 1989).
Buddhism has always been less aggressive and less organized than
Christianity. This has meant that its influence on society has been
subtle, less noticeable and even perhaps less dynamic than it should
have been. On the other hand it has also meant that the witch hunts
against heretics, the persecution of non-believers, and the bloody
religious wars which have marred Christian history have been rare or
absent in Buddhism.
(1) Deep down Buddhists are really searching for God
(2) Buddhism is just a different expression of man's understanding of God
(3) Buddhists are Christians outside the church
Today one often hears liberal Christians make statements like these.
Sadly, such statements are meaningless. One could simply reverse
them and say "Deep down Christians are really searching for
Nirvana", "The Christian God is just a personification of Nirvana",
or "Christians are Buddhists outside the Sangha". Although such
statements are often welcomed by Buddhists as indicating that liberal
Christians are more tolerant than their fundamentalist brothers and
sisters, this is actually not so. Such statements really show that
Christians still wish to claim superiority for their own religion. They
also show that the liberal Christian's supposed tolerance is dependent
upon believing that Buddhism is just another form of Christianity. In
short, it is based on a delusion. Liberal Christians will only be
genuinely tolerant when they can admit that Buddhism is different
from Christianity, very different, and be tolerant despite these
Buddhism may be a noble philosophy but if you look at
Buddhist countries you notice that so few people seem to practise
Perhaps! But is it not exactly the same in Christian countries? What
honest Christian could say that all Christians fully, sincerely and
with deep understanding follow Jesus' teachings? Let us not judge a
religion by those who fail to practise it.
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