Buddhism & Christianity, Part 2: Differences


After my suggestions about an inclusive model for common ground between Christian and Buddhist philosophies the following discussion took place on another site. Thus we begin with a couple of ‘guest posts’ and then see my response to them.

From Matthew Su:

I’ve always had a rather strong antipathy toward Buddhism as a philosophy. Yes, it gets much ethical teaching right, because the effective alleviation of suffering, which is Buddhism’s central project, demands much attention to what is central to and real in human nature, and therefore can yield legitimate ethical insights into how to live, since the alleviation of suffering is a true moral end that undergirds much of morality. However, the principles and metaphysic which underlie its conclusions make those teachings have a different significance.

Far as I can tell, Buddhism is nihilism in a nice frock, a degeneration from Hinduism rather than an improvement. It is nihilistic in its metaphysics, nihilistic in its view of human nature and opinion of creation, nihilistic in its meta-ethics, and nihilistic in its ends. Indeed, it is the most thoroughly nihilistic philosophy I have ever come across, though admittedly it is a rather better class of nihilism than most, with some legitimately good insights into metaphysics and ethics. Nevertheless, the nihilistic approach at its core is a fundamental ugliness that ought to disturb the Christian deeply.

For the Buddhist, there are three marks of existence that characterise their metaphysics.

The first is anicca, or ‘impermanence.’ From what I can tell, this is identical to Heraclitus’ doctrine that there is nothing but change. Nothing truly persists- all that exists are ever-changing appearances undergone by your ever-changing fundamental constituents.

This leads to the conclusion of annata, or ‘non-self,’ when applied to human nature. There is, on this view, no “you,” per se, since a person is nothing more than a bunch of physical and psychological components constantly in flux. Persons as such, therefore, don’t actually exist, though the individual components of a mind, such as one’s thoughts, experiences, desires and sufferings, do exist. This is, of course, nothing more than mereological nihilism, a denial of the existence of the self itself, in favour of reducing it to its parts.

The last is Dhukka- often translated as ‘suffering,’ or ‘disquietude,’ for Buddhism it is something that pervades all of reality, and a quality that characterises firstly suffering, secondly change or impermanence, and lastly ‘conditionedness,’ what we might call “contingency.” Impermanence, imperfection, and lack characterise everything, so the Buddhist contends, and it is our wrestling with this that produces disquietude and suffering. Buddhism thus locates the source of suffering in the very fabric of contingent and composite existence. The project of Buddhism is in confronting this reality, and thereby liberating oneself from cultivating undue attachment to that which is impermanent and thus inherently unsatisfactory in the long run.

There is much that the Christian can agree with, here- that worldly goods are transitory and not ultimately satisfactory, that we have desires that can never be quenched by the things of this world. Where Christianity, however, seeks the fulfilment of all these desires, and to put attachments to goods earthly and transitory, and heavenly and eternal, the Buddhist project despairs from the beginning of any heavenly eternal goods, and seeks only the cessation of suffering through the gradual extinguishing of attachment and desire, rather than the redemption of desire into its proper order with the right ends in place.

These basic assumptions, in my view, make the Buddhist project, doomed from the beginning. Morality, on such a system, cannot be a matter of fulfilling one’s obligations, or performing actions which are objectively value-worthy, but of performing actions that are conducive to eventually realizing one’s own non-existence, and so is meta-ethically vacuous- it cannot ground either value or duty. The supreme end, the cessation of suffering through negating the self, is inherently pessimistic and nihilistic. Of course, in the course of arriving at the highest level of the cessation of suffering through the negation of the self, they do pursue many other wholesome, indeed highly virtuous ends, but the very worth of these ends is in my view undermined by Buddhism’s highly perverse view of both the self and nature and the appropriateness of the desires that bind us to it.


Matthew goes on to critique my opinions on the Eightfold Path:

On right perspective, he says that Christianity and Buddhism are similar in that they commit their adherents to beliefs. That’s a rather minor similarity- even Nihilism and Christianity have this much in common!

On right intention, I don’t think he’s quite correct in saying that Right Intention is submission to the authority of the Dharma. Rather, Right Intention is the intention which flows from the comprehension of Right Perspective- the Intention to counteract Desire, Ill-Will, and Harm, which, given the Right Perspective, throw up roadblocks to the cessation of suffering. It is the Intention that follows from an understanding of the cause-and-effect relationships that Buddhism asserts; it is not submission to authority, but a pragmatic adjusting of behaviour to match impersonal facts understood. If it is any sort of submission to an authority, it is submission to the “authority” of the expert, which is quite a different thing from the theist’s submission to the authority of the Lord.

The gulf between this and submission to the will of a supremely authoritative God is immense. The one is an act of self-interest, and a perverse form of it, at that, given Buddhist metaphysics. The other recognizes the objective obligations that bind human action, and seek to act accordingly. They are simply utterly different in their moral approach. Christianity does emphasize obedience, but Buddhism emphasizes pragmatic utility in the service of self-negation.

On right action, the Buddhist’s meta-ethical starting principles are so different from the Christian commitment to obedience to the supreme authority of God that, again, it is hard to draw comparisons. The Buddhist is not under obligation to act as a Buddhist. This is simply a pragmatic plan to ensure the Buddhist’s eventual self-negation and the cessation of his suffering. That they both act in service of their cause is true, of course, and that they are both committed is beyond question, but if this is a similarity, it is not a very deep one.

On Right Speech, this does not at all have anything to do with “The Word” or the Logos as used in Christianity. It does indicate a commitment to truth, which is commendable and shared.

On Right Livelihood there are similarities and differences, but lots of overlap since the business of living is something we hold in common, and what is conducive to reduced suffering is generally in alignment with the good. I’d be inclined to grant him this one.

On Right Effort, which the Buddhists take to mean the cultivation of wholesome states and the prevention of unwholesome ones, I would agree that there is a large body of natural law tradition on the Christian side that plausibly overlaps. Of course, the “defilements” of Buddhism that make states unwholesome include such things that are basic to our nature as desire, which Christian Natural Law, contra Buddhism, doesn’t see as defilement, but on the contrary encourages that we fulfill in its proper place. So perhaps, though they may agree on some things, some aspects of Christian natural law, which sees nature as a good created by God, would be quite opposed to Buddhist notions, just as they were to Gnostic ones.

On Right Awareness, I would say that the Buddhist concept is most akin to the “spiritual experience” of Christians, rather than the cultivation of intellectual virtues. The Buddhist believes it possible to directly experience, through careful spiritual discipline, the truth of Buddhism’s metaphysical claims (never mind how his faculties, so prone to error, are able to achieve this. I’d love to see a Buddhist try to argue that nihilism is properly basic). That Christianity and Buddhism respectively emphasize spiritual experience -often incommunicable and non-rationally-expressible mysticism- is indeed a similarity, and a striking one, but not one that the author pointed out. Seek and ye shall find might be shared, but Buddhism is seeking the wrong thing.

On Right Concentration, I think the parallels between the Buddhist consciousness-raising exercise of cultivating concentration and the Christian practice of prayer and contemplation of God are very weak. We are not trying to raise our own consciousnesses, but are simply opening ourselves up to God’s grace. I think that in this way, there is a very marked difference in the Buddhist and the Christian’s self-understanding, rather than a similarity.

From Sean Oakley:

There are some serious misunderstandings about Buddhist metaphysical and ethical principles here. Firstly, the tilakkhana ‘three marks of existence’ are by no means nihilistic or pessimistic. These three metaphysical principles are supposed to coalesce in one’s mind and initiate an understanding of the true nature of existence and how to use it to reach Nibbāna ‘Enlightenment’. The understanding it entails sometimes counted as an extra principle.

The three marks of existence, or four seals, are supposed to teach one that existence’s true form is infinite potentiality – essentially a perpetual state of flux (which applies to our own existence as much as anything else). And that to rely on any particular external object during one’s life would be a symptom of the attachment borne of ignorance. According to Buddhists, avijjā ‘ignorance’ is the greatest vice, and paññā ‘perfect knowledge/wisdom/serenity’ the greatest virtue.

On top of all the above, Buddha stated that the perfect emotion was mettā ‘maximal and indiscriminate love/benevolence’ for all other minds.

In Buddhism, to truly seek Nibbāna is to tread magga the ‘spiritual/righteous path’. The fact that Buddhism is atheistic only to the extent that it was built, and is consistent, without a god-component is irrelevant. Even if you are theistic, discrimination against and hatred for non-theists is pointless – it only disgraces your own God(s).

My Reply:

Matthew quite accurately illustrated how different traditional Buddhist metaphysics are. Of course this is not itself a criticism of my piece because it was not a systematic assessment of similarities and differences but a proposal of some similarities. And as I define religion, Buddhist metaphysics is separate from what I regard as the practice of Buddhist religion, as is Christian metaphysics to being a Christian.

Matthew appears to disagree with this definition: “God himself cares about our religious beliefs- why else reveal himself?” I’d respond that perhaps it is a misinterpretation of said revelation that he cares specifically about what we happen to think, because that seems to make God unreasonably arbitrary, or indeed, unjust- as Marcus Aurelius argued.

I should clarify that I know very little about Buddhism at all, I’ve only read three little introductory books, the last of which had this neat summary of the Eightfold Path which got me thinking about how a Christian would interpret each of the points. That’s all this piece was- a little brainstorm along these lines, not a statement of fact or an academic essay. I thought that was clear from the way it was worded. But something I’ve discovered in philosophy is that an audience always seems to project assumed authority/accuracy onto a speaker.

Comparative theology is neither about saying I’m right and your wrong, nor about exalting the exact middle ground between two faiths. It is about looking a specific areas and questions and taking different perspectives to bare on them. In my opinion ‘nihilism’ isn’t as big a difference between Christianity and Buddhism as is suffering.

Firstly, Matthew’s argument- these “make the Buddhist project, doomed from the beginning. Morality, on such a system, cannot be a matter of fulfilling one’s obligations, or performing actions which are objectively value-worthy, but of performing actions that are conducive to eventually realizing one’s own non-existence, and so is meta-ethically vacuous- it cannot ground either value or duty” -suffers from a rather critical permutation problem, namely that if you replace ‘Buddhist’ for ‘Abrahamic’, and ‘realising one’s own non-existence’ to ‘attaining one’s reward in paradise’ it is a no less plausible an objection against the Semitic religions.

Secondly, I agree with Sean that Buddhism is not actually nihilistic. But while I couldn’t generalise by saying that Buddhists are pessimistic people, the Buddhism perspective is certainly pessimistic in the technical sense that it sees the world is a irredeemably terrible place. But ‘Nihilism’ as I use the term means the absence of values (moral and otherwise) and, by extension, meaning. But as Sean indicated Buddhism is replete with values. The Buddhist has much to believe in, and this (if nothing else) makes their life meaningful. By contrast, Matthew seems to think that life is meaningless if we do not ultimately have a fixed (perhaps immortal) unique self. But I do not see why this should be. Successful Buddhists are anything but unhappy and unfulfilled.

To digress, I happily grant Matthew that points 2, 4, 5, and 6 needed further clarification. But I dispute his criticisms of 3 and 8 –pertaining to the Logos as a revelation of reason and truth (necessarily embedded in language, the Word), and to meditation– because each of these are very important and emphasised strongly in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the rich mystical tradition in Catholicism, as well as in much contemporary catholic theology. He may well be right that meditation fits more under awareness than it does concentration. But he is not accurate in what he says on concentration.

To digress further, certainly Buddhism is considerably more individualised in its social organisation than is Christianity (or Hinduism) which value community not just instrumentally, as a refuge, but intrinsically as united members of God’s ‘body’. As a collectivist in both spirituality and politics, this is a significant downside of Buddhism for me. But Matthew is wrong to imply that the Buddhist is not called to be concerned with the enlightenment of others, since that is a distinctive quality of Mahayana Buddhism (as was hinted at by Sean).

Having recalled the concept of mystical unity in Christ, Matthew’s statement that Christians “are not trying to raise our own consciousnesses, but are simply opening ourselves up to God’s grace”, and even more so his antipathy towards the non-existence of the self, seems to have been rooted in an over-simplification of the Christian understanding of at-one-ment with God. Consider:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)

Moreover: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Biblical Christianity literally calls people  to sacrifice their lives, not just for, but into the divine life. Buddhism does, however, remain significantly more pessimistic than Christianity/Hinduism here because it has no Bhaktiyoga, that is, no loss of self into Supreme Self.

Not only does Matthew exaggerate the extent to which Buddhism is nihilistic, but he also seems to caricature Buddhism’s attitude to desire as a crudely Stoic one, more opposed to Christianity’s attitude than it in fact is. Much Buddhist teaching, particularly (I believe), in Tibetan thought, emphasises that  the ‘attachment’ we must rid ourselves of isn’t the desiring things themselves, but being attached to those things satisfying you as a consequence of doing or obtaining them. Desire is not intrinsically bad, but only those desires that lead necessarily to suffering. I stress that there are very real and important differences over desire/love, but the (admittedly related) differences over suffering are wider. In Buddhism,

These differences are difficult to summarise (particularly as I’m putting this together from my own experience), but we can draw out the indication of a fundamental difference by looking at the central event of Christianity, Christ’s suffering on the cross. For a Buddhist this suffering like any suffering is absolutely bad, but for the Christian this is not the case. Pain is usually considered an intrinsic evil but the wider process of suffering is considered to be of instrumental value – it has a higher purpose to fulfil.

The Christian is actually called to be honoured in suffering for Christ, and moreover to unite their sufferings to those of his on the cross. The process of God’s love is then gradually able to *transform* the sacrifice made in that suffering into something greater, namely the final goal of the redemption of the entire cosmos. This whole mythological edifice could then be regarded as a symbolic representation of the truism that to achieve something great requires hard work and sacrifice.

As symbols have cultural currency, particularly when integrated into an authoritative religion, this basic idea would then run down into everyday life having quite significant implications for lifestyle conventions and moral laws. If we embrace pain and sacrifice as necessary means to self-transformation, then our sacrifice as a community will, through the grace of God, be the means to the transformation of, the redemption of the world. It is essential to this worldview that suffering is not an illusion (as it is for the Buddhist) but an obstacle that we must develop the courage to fight throughout our lives. (Not that Christians believe that God wanted life to be like that.)

The Christian is a warrior who actively struggles for justice, who gets their hands dirty, and who is not afraid of suffering because they know that God’s spirit is always comforting them. The Christian not only loves, but loves hard- that is, they embrace romantic desire even when it there is a fair likelihood of it leading to greater suffering over all. This is because true interpersonal love (e.g. from a spouse or from God) is the highest value to the Christian, and so is to be sought at every opportunity and at every cost.

For the Buddhist by contrast, the highest value is enlightenment which naturally entails a more passive, quietist approach to life, which is also suspicious of the riskiness of true love. Buddhism is inexorably utilitarian, which is anathema to Christianity’s focus on the pursuit of love over personal convenience and contentment.

A final thought is that given the above reasons, being an atheist is not in itself a reason to prefer Buddhist over Christian spirituality.


Back to Part 1.

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5 thoughts on “Buddhism & Christianity, Part 2: Differences

  1. Pingback: Buddhism & Christianity, Part 1: Common Ground « Vibrant Bliss

  2. I just found this quote which sums it up very eloquently:

    “It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.” – Pope Benedict XVI

    P.S. It’s surprising that no one mentioned Karma and Rebirth isn’t it? (I mentioned them briefly the Hinduism post.)

  3. I really enjoyed your reply. Especially the following;
    “Firstly, Matthew’s argument- these “make the Buddhist project, doomed from the beginning. Morality, on such a system, cannot be a matter of fulfilling one’s obligations, or performing actions which are objectively value-worthy, but of performing actions that are conducive to eventually realizing one’s own non-existence, and so is meta-ethically vacuous- it cannot ground either value or duty” -suffers from a rather critical permutation problem, namely that if you replace ‘Buddhist’ for ‘Abrahamic’, and ‘realising one’s own non-existence’ to ‘attaining one’s reward in paradise’ it is a no less plausible an objection against the Semitic religions.”
    I seem to be consistently discovering that charges of nihilism or moral vacuity are the consequence of reading belief systems without the necessary breath of value through them. Pinned to a table theism or Buddhism both become selfish or even just “what floats your boat.” Enlightenment is just a pleasure state and God is just an arbitrary enforcer.
    You said it better.

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