Aside

Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Cambodia

In a previous post I observed that Hinduism shares many features at a fundamental level with Christianity. If this is so, then one would expect that Christianity also shares important features with Buddhism since that religion developed out of Hinduism and retains many Hindu characteristics. And indeed this is so, but this comparison is a more complex and nuanced one. Buddhism is very often likened to Christianity in terms of its ethics, its emphasis on altruism and peace. This is accurate, but superficial. My aim is to draw out some more specific contrasts in terms of the central formulae of Buddhism.

The Eightfold Path

If Christianity diverges quite a bit from Buddhism on what the problem to be solved is (i.e. separation from God rather than suffering), how much it converges on the solution is all the more striking. This Eightfold Path is the origin of the symbol of Buddhism- the eight-spoked wheel. Each of the eight spokes must be present together to form a robust unity. In what follows I will describe each of these ideals proposing a Christian reading of them as I go.

1. Right understanding/perspective: This allows the Buddhist to gain a deeper appreciation of the correctness of, and get closer to, the Dharma. This is similar to the role of belief in Christianity. The Greek word used in the bible that we translate as ‘belief’ has the etymology of ‘holding dear’ – accepting something as good with one’s heart. The function played by the word in early Christianity was then that of ‘allegiance’, being prepared to accept something as true on at least a symbolic understanding.[1] While this does not preclude our modern English usage of ‘belief’ as thinking that something is factually the case neither does it imply it. Believing in justice, peace and love are different from believing that there is justice, peace and love. Hence Buddhism is similar in its recognition of mental perspective as an important aid to practical action.

2. Right thought/intention: In Buddhism this entails submission to the Dharma as an authority above oneself. So in the theistic religions this ideal is expressed by submission to God and to God’s revealed wisdom as seen by that tradition. Hence Buddhism shares with Christianity the virtue of humble obedience, and the rejection of relativism or subjectivism about spiritual matters.

3. Right action: This is living out the Dharma conscientiously. This corresponds to the traditional meaning of the term ‘faith‘ in the Christian tradition, namely, the virtue of acting upon and remaining loyal to what is believed.[2] Hence the Christian has faith in what St. Paul (writing before the term ‘Christianity’ had been invented) referred to as ‘The Way’, in the same way as the Buddhist has faith in the Dharma- as a commitment to a pattern of self-transcendence.

4. Right speech: This is being truthful, and being faithful to the word. Christian theology places a large emphasis upon just communication as the primary form of reconciliation with God and with one another. This stands upon the biblical tradition in which the most fundamental symbol for, and action of God is utterance. Christ has the title of the Word before any of his (many) other titles, before the world began. It is through this one Word that the world was created, and through the same Word that it is redeemed- as spoken in the spiritual teaching of Jesus. Hence, mindfulness about the power of language is common to Christianity and Buddhism.

5. Right Livelihood: This is about having a vocation in life that is free from greed and exploitation. The same ideal is expressed by the social teaching of the Church. Today Buddhists can co-operate with Christians and all people in fighting the against the exploitation of nature in addition to that of people.

6. Right Effort: This is making use of our skills in a balanced way. This is very similar to Aristotle’s theory of moral virtue as developed upon by Christian thinkers, particularly Thomas Aquinas. Virtuous behaviours are habits which are in harmony with our nature and balanced between excess and deficiency.

7. Right Awareness: This concerns the habits of being mentally attuned in ways that are conducive to right effort. As such this corresponds to the intellectual virtues which are distinct from moral ones (though still morally relevant) in pertaining to internal rather than external states. Whereas moral virtues include courage, generosity, and temperance, intellectual virtues include determination, hope, and detachment.

8. Right Concentration: This is the ideal of keeping mentally focused, not just in the quiet time we spend on our own, but in all our thought and action. While Christianity has put less emphasis on this than Buddhism, it shares this aim with prayerfulness being central to the teaching of Jesus. While this gives a special place to dialogue prayer it is certainly not exhausted by it, silent meditation is very much included in the Christian’s program for radical transformation.

In the light of the above we cannot say that Christians are Buddhists but we can say with confidence that they are rather ‘Buddhish’.

The Three Jewels

Next I will make a more speculative sketch based on the formula of the Three Jewels. The ‘Jewels’ are things from which Buddhists take refuge, that is, receive spiritual strength. These are:

1. The enlightenment-being of the Buddha-nature. This is a spiritual ideal which illuminates the potential in all beings.

2. The Dharma, the wisdom taught by the Buddha, the practise of which leads to enlightenment.

3. The Sangha, the community of support formed by the other practising Buddhists.

It is interesting to compare this triadic formula with that of the Holy Trinity. I am not saying that they are extremely similar, let alone that Buddhists could be said to believe in the Christian Trinity. All I am claiming is that there are similarities in the formulas that are striking to consider, because these formulas have a similar place and function in their respective traditions.

C. S. Lewis explained the Trinity in the following way: “People already knew about God in a vague way. Then came a man who claimed to be God; and … He made them believe Him. … And then, after they had been formed into a little society or community, they found God somehow inside them as well: directing them, making them able to do things they could not do before.”[3] Clearly the consolation of the God the Spirit corresponds to refuge in the Sangha, but what of the other two?

An important sense in which God the Father is ‘father’ is that he is a mystery who stands above and outside of us, rather than a mother who is intimately beside us (that would be the Spirit- as expressed in the family, Mary and the Church). Like the Buddha-nature, the Father is seen as grounding spiritual ideals, particularly the value and dignity of life. Lastly, God the Son (‘the Word eternally spoken by the Father’), is the authentic expression of this mystery, who as God among us (incarnate in our very humanity), shows us how to respond to the spiritual ideal in practise. Thus, this Word corresponds to the Dharma, upon which both faith and the new community of the Spirit are grounded.

But why is this more tenuous than the claims made earlier in this essay? Because both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions have historically tended to understand the first jewel as the historical Buddha himself rather than the Buddha nature as an ideal, and on that version the direct similarity falls apart. In defence of my reading, however, this historical tendency is no reason to say that that must be the correct interpretation.

Lastly, it is notable that trinitarian art appears in cultures all over the world, indeed the famous Three Hares design originated in Buddhism. Certainly three is internationally seen as a ‘magic’ number, and if I had to speculate why I would say that it is because it is the first number by which it is possible to have a community. This leads me to a thought upon which to close: as community is the most important thing in our lives, perhaps it is in ultimate reality also.

P. S. A final surprise.

Continue to Part 2, which is a critical discussion based on the above.

Notes

[1] Cupitt, Don, (1980), Taking Leave of God, London, SCM, p. 153;  see also: Buckareff, Andrei, (2010), ‘Belief, Acceptance, and Panentheism’ (an interview with Luke Muehlhauser)

[2] Lewis, C. S., (1955), Mere Christianity, London, Fontana Books; see also: Cottingham, John G., (2005), The Spiritual Dimension, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 166-8

[3] Lewis, C. S., (1955), Mere Christianity, London, Fontana Books

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Buddhism & Christianity

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Buddhism & Christianity, Part 2: Differences « Vibrant Bliss

  2. I like your way of thought…I believe God reveals Himself to us in ways we are able to grasp…we are all connected, bound to each other in Ultimate Reality…God is beyond our finite comprehension, and we will return to our original nature by His compassion…read about Pureland Buddhism…and Amida Buddha. I believe it would be most edifying…Shinran-Shonin is the central figure in bringing the Buddhist faith to ordinary people…He speaks of faith alone and reliance upon ‘Other Power’ rather that ‘self power’ as necessary to become free of samsara…or in Christian terms, free from the negative impacts of our sinful nature…

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