What Do Buddha and Jesus Have in Common?

Corduan, Winfried. Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1998.

Hagen, Steve. Buddhism Plain & Simple: The Practice of Being Aware, Right Now, Every Day. New York: Broadway, 1999.

Lim, David and Steve Spaulding, ed. Sharing Jesus Holistically with the Buddhist World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2005.

Each of these books provide valuable insight into various aspects of Buddhism and the Christian responses thereof. Winfried Corduan’s work is a general introduction to world religions. As such, his chapter on Buddhism is broad and general, yet he discusses the major Buddhist sects in turn. Based on the readings in Hagen, one could question Corduan’s understanding of the Four Noble Truth’s and the Eight Fold Path, but Corduan’s purpose is not to critique them, so he does not go into detail on particular definitions of terms, such as the case with Hagen. Coming to Steve Hagen, Hagen is a Zen Buddhist, having received Dharma Transmission from Zen Master Dainin Katagiri. This particular work, Buddhism Plain & Simple, is a book written by a Buddhist for the sole purpose of leading readers to enlightenment, actually “awareness”, through the Four Noble Truths (4NT) and along the Eight Fold Path (8FP). This book is an excellent read, having been written for a Western audience, and it presents a clear picture of Zen Buddhism. The book edited by Lim and Spaulding is a compilation of essays related to the interface between Christianity, primarily through missionaries, and various forms of Buddhism, globally. While not sole a source on Buddhism itself, though a few essays go into systematic details of the religion, the book is a valuable resource for understanding ways the Christian church has encountered and should encounter Buddhism, on the front lines. This volume in particular, Sharing Jesus Holistically with the Buddhist World, is the second of two volumes, the first being nine essays providing models of contextualized Christianity for Buddhist contexts. Rather than supplying a book by book summary of the abovementioned works, the conclusion of this post will involve my own general thoughts on Buddhism and some ideas in particular that stood out to me from these books.

Can we learn something from Buddhism?

The Four Noble Truths (Hagen: 25–59):

  1. duhkha (or as is commonly misunderstood “all life is suffering”)– three types:
    1. pain – physical and mental
    2. change – dissatisfaction, disturbance
    3. being – “self”ness
  2. duhkha arises from thirst
    1. “inclination of mind”
    2. Intention
  3. Since duhkha arises, it too is subject to cessation
    1. Less desire/thirst
    2. “forgetting the self”
  4. The eightfold path as a realization and a practice for bringing about the cessation of duhkha
    1. Hagen reminds us that to be on the path is to be on the whole path at once—it is not sequential
    2. Also Important to realize, that Hagen’s coming to the 8FP from a Zen perspective!

The Eight Fold Path (Hagen: 53–9)

  1. Right view – being aware, seeing everything, including the non-self as they are, as a dynamic whole
  2. Right Intention – resolve to awaken, because of how things are (not because you want or will to awaken—key point!)
  3. Right Speech – speaking of things as they are, according to Truth
  4. Right Action – “action proceeding from an unfettered mind, a mind not embalmed in rigid thought constructs
  5. Right Livelihood – occupations that “encourage openness, insight, honesty, and harmony” (obviously Theravedic sects will define this differently)
  6. Right Effort – “willing abandonment of our fragmented reality and dualistic thought, moment after moment, and the encouragement of healthy and Wholesome states of mind”
  7. Right Mindfulness – not forgetting the root of the problem, duhkha.
  8. Right Meditation – “collecting the mind so that it becomes focused, centered, and aware.”

While the following is a beginning to the answer to this question, much more could be said. Even so, Hagen’s presentation of Zen Buddhism is particularly intriguing to me. As a philosophical system, there are many facets amenable to the Western mind. First, it rejects the primacy of conceptual frameworks for true knowledge. It goes further by creating a dichotomy between truth and conceptual systems, but the postmodernity project has been an effort to undermine the epistemological base of proposition truth. Second, awareness, or enlightenment, is realizing that all things are flux, there is no self, and all things are one. This suits the Western mind well because it recognizes the infinite complexity yet absolute unity of human experience. Third, Zen Buddhism, following the 4NT, recognizes that something is amiss in human experience. Duhkha is not just suffering, but the out-of-kilterness of the universe and human knowing. The downfall of Enlightenment rationality (i.e. Modernity) has grown in many ways out of this very notion. That is, naive realism and ideal realism are maya, illusion. Finally, as a Mahayana sect, Zen Buddhism allows for the laity, not just the priesthood or monks, to reach enlightenment. Hagen stresses that awareness can be achieved at any point in life, of course according to the 4NT and the 8FP. Again, this fits well the Western egalitarian way of life. These are just a few of the elements of Hagen’s book that have given me a great appreciation for Zen Buddhism as a system of philosophy and even epistemology, even though I have other major and foundational disagreements with Buddhism, as would any Christian!

Am I becoming a Buddhist?

No, I do have major disagreements. First, Zen Buddhism has no place for God. How could it? The road to enlightenment is only through one’s own effort! Who needs God in this system? Plus, a Buddhist concept of deity is devoid of the content necessary for understanding the Christian God anyway (definitely a point of emphasis for contextualization and gospel witness). Second, related to the first, the ultimate contradiction of Buddhism is that it is only through the self that the self comes to realize there is not self at all—and this non-self is the very one aware of its non-selfness. Third, as much as I can appreciate the value of complexity in wholeness and that everything is “stream”, as a Christian, I not only recognize a beginning, but also an end (telos) of all things. This is because I recognize one who is totally “other”. A Christian cannot be a monist! I do not mind a monistic approach to human experience, but I am ultimately a dualist. There is an Other! Yet, I also recognize that I cannot rely on my conceptualizations of him. Primarily, my knowledge of Him is not propositional, but relational. He has revealed himself to me. When I meditate on what I see, I see the beauty and the complexity which takes me in two directions, backward to the one who created all things I “see” for His own glory, and forward to the same one who will one day destroy all things, for His own glory, to recreate them in eternal beauty. In Him we live, and move, and have our being! In this sense,compared to Christianity, Zen Buddhism is not aware, but ignorant, of Truth, that is, this One who is wholly Other!

How then can one communicate Truth about this Other, the Triune Godhead, to a Buddhist?

I’m not in a position yet to give a comprehensive model, but let me give some key points through quotes out of the volume by Lim & Spaulding et al.  The chapter of particular note is Chapter 7: An Exploration of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Light of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths by Michal Solomon Vasanthakumar. The wisdom literature of the Bible is an untapped resource, for the most part, by Christian missionaries and evangelists. We would do well, as with Vasanthakumar, to meditate on wisdom and present the gospel through this medium, especially when encountering World Religions.


Chapter 2: The Power of the Kingdom for Encountering Buddhist Worldviews by Tan Kang San

  • Foundational Axioms for a Kingdom-Oriented Theology of Christian-Buddhist Encounters (15–29)
  1. God alone is King
  2. Christ-Centered
  3. Trinitarian
  4. Transcending narrow ecclesiology
  5. God’s reign, not abstract ideas
  6. Eschatological hope in Christ
  7. Totally dependent upon God’s sovereign activity
  • Cosmological argument (16)
  • Value of Aquinas (17)
  • The kingdom of God is concerned with every aspect of human life (26–7): wholistic mission

Chapter 3: Practical Applications of the Good News into Doctrinal Black Holes in Buddhism by John R. Davis

  • The battle for the soul of the Buddhist is in his mind—his understanding and worldview…the locus for any approach to the Buddhist has to be his mind and conscience (54).

Chapter 5: Transfer of Merit in Folk Buddhism by Alex G. Smith

  • Significant barriers also abound when using the approach of the Cross of Christ as a contextual model for “transferring merits” to Buddhists… (119):
    • Their abhorrence of blood sacrifice as represented by Christ being crucified. This conflicts with their revulsion against killing life in any form.
    • The Buddhist also attributes karma to Christ because of his violent execution on the cross, normally used for criminals. Since the iron law of karma is inescapable, Buddhists hereby suggest Christ must have been less than perfect and insufficient in holiness, because he suffered such an ignominious death.
    • Buddhists categorically reject the claim of Christ’s deity as God, as well as any concept that “only God can transfer merit.” Jesus is seen as human only.
    • The high concept of the voluntary substitution of Christ is also in question. Taking the place of all humankind, and bearing sin and karmic consequences of the whole world, are both foreign and also impossible to the Buddhist mind.

Chapter 7: An Exploration of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Light of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths by Michal Solomon Vasanthakumar

  • Like the Buddha, Qoheleth also sees human desires as the root cause for the human predicament (158).
  • The fundamental difference between Buddha’s and Qoheleth’s theses lies in their proposed solutions to the human predicament (159).
  • According to the Buddha, one has to follow the Eight-Fold Path to emancipate from dukkha. Qoheleth, on the other hand, admonishes people to bring God into their lives to end hebel and enjoy life (160).
  • Buddhism, while denying the self (this is the crux of anatta), teaches that a man must depend on himself for his own deliverance… “What is the self that denies the self and at the same time asserts that it alone can save the self?” [quoting Lynn de Silva]…in view of anatta, God becomes indispensable. Thus by emphasizing anatta Christians could make an attempt to convince the Buddhists the necessity of diving help in attaining the ultimate goal in religious pursuit (163).

Chapter 8: A Contextualized Presentation of the Gospel in Thai Society by Alan R. Johnson

  • For a large number of people, the deep human needs of love, acceptance, and security take precedence over the doctrinal considerations, which make the love of God a stumbling block for the strict Buddhist. Finally, the hope of Nirvana is for most people very far off and not a practical reality (189).

Chapter 11: Holistic Mission: A Thai Church’s Ministry to the Whole Person by James W. Gustafson

  • They [social ministries] are often linked by the “add-on-an-evangelist” syndrome where development projects are given spiritual credibility by the addition of an evangelist who is related to a separate department or organization (284).
  • Evangelism is transformation, transformation is development, and development is evangelism in a very real sense (284–5).
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