The current prevailing philosophy in our western world is that everyone’s opinion is equal and no one is wrong or even less good. I am free to enjoy my religion (so far) as long as I don’t impose it on you or let it provoke me to “hate speech.” The only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth.
Since we are surrounded by so many prompts to affirm and celebrate diversity, it is easy to get so used to focusing on what we have in common that we might be tempted to accept the general notion that there really isn’t much difference between Christianity and the religions around us. After all, don’t we all want peace and harmony and brotherly love? Doesn’t meditation provide the same freedom from stress and problems that people have formerly sought through prayer? Can’t we all just seek the good of man and leave one another to whatever spoke of the wheel might be followed to get to the God/god in the hub?
Recently, I conversed with some Buddhists who claimed that I could be a Christian and still practice Buddhist philosophy. I studied about how Buddhism started as a quest by Siddharta Buddha around 4 BC to relieve suffering in this world. I was intrigued to note that there are some similarities between the two religions, and I began to understand why some people might think that they are essentially alike.
Buddhism and Christianity are similar in their view that suffering is going to happen and that people need to be prepared with their manner of dealing with it. They are similar in their promotion of a lack of attachment to material things so that the loss will be less difficult. They are similar in many of their ethics regarding people’s actions and attitudes in life. But they are very different in their way of handling the suffering that comes, and in the meaning of that suffering. Therein all surface similarities take a wide fork in the road, to different destinations.
Let’s take the “Four Noble Truths of Buddhism” as a format on which to compare and contrast these two viewpoints on suffering. In brief form, they state:
1. Suffering is our existence.
2. Suffering is caused by craving, wanting or desirousness.
3. Freedom from suffering can be secured.
4. The way out of suffering is to follow the path.
1. Is suffering our existence?
In order to conclude that suffering is our existence, the Buddha employed a wide view, which included not only tragedies and grief, but daily sadness, old age, sickness, association with the unpleasant, and all forms of mental and physical sufferings as well. He also included such ideas as imperfection, impermanence, insubstantiality, and a lack of lasting satisfaction. He believed that everyone suffers it, and must become truly aware of that suffering before anything can be done about it.
If there is no lasting satisfaction, it is no wonder that he said suffering is our existence! Christians are taught to expect suffering to be a part of our lives, but there is also joy, peace, and comfort. Jesus spoke of his upcoming suffering in Luke 9:22 and then followed with the words, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:23). By this he meant that his followers would indeed suffer in this world as they followed him. In Matthew 5 he told his disciples that they would mourn and that they would be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Hebrews chapter 11 tells of many peoples’ suffering, and the faith which caused them to continue. And 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 talks of being “hard-pressed,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” and “struck down.”
Both religions involve people looking out at the world and beholding the misery to be found there and describing it. But what is the cause of this suffering?
2. Is suffering caused by craving, wanting, or desirousness?
The Buddha taught that the cause of suffering was found in craving, wanting or desirousness. By this he did not mean just wanting something that is possible or needed, but wanting what is impossible for one to have. He described it as a “wish to possess wholly, to cling to,” as something that we want “to remain as it is at that moment” (Adrienne Howley, The Naked Buddha). We want people we love to stay the same, for no one to ever die or be sick, and for any good thing we have to always be with us. This leads us to feelings of greed, hatred, passion, aggression, and ignorance. We want what we want when we want it.
Instead, the Buddha taught that we need to accept the truth of impermanence. If we do not expect it, we do not miss it. Howley explains that “nothing can make us joyful in the face of sorrow,” but states that being aware of this truth will reduce the pain, because the craving and clinging cause more pain than the loss itself does. Otherwise, we may suffer loss and continue on in blaming, anger, and hatred for whomever brought about our loss; it might even lead to war or personal wars of jealousy and envy. He taught that the attachment itself is the cause of suffering in this life.
The Bible expresses somewhat similar views regarding our attachments and cravings. But the underlying cause for suffering in the world is completely different.
In Matthew 6:19 Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Colossians 3:1-2a implores followers to, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” James 4:1 asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.”
From all of these verses, we see that the Christian faith leads us to realize that our attachments to “things” can lead us to suffering. If we desire our brother’s possessions, we will be unhappy and also ungrateful for what we do have. If we are attached to our goods and they are stolen, we will feel loss. If we become really envious, we may even fight someone else to get what we want. But while our actions are the cause which leads to the effect of suffering, the Bible leads us back a step further into the cause behind this step in the process of suffering.
Romans 3 teaches us that “there is no one who does good, not even one” and states that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:12,23). There will be no sinless thinking this side of heaven. Throughout the Old Testament there were many admonitions to follow God’s path in order to be blessed, and examples of being punished because of not obeying God. We see that it was because of their sin that they acted in rebellion against God’s commandments, and they brought suffering upon themselves. We should also note that the groups that Israel conquered and destroyed were receiving the result of their sins against God as well (Psalm 2).
But Christians also know from the Book of Job that God allows His people to suffer for reasons other than their sins. Satan, the deceiver, contributed to the suffering by coming to God and receiving permission to afflict Job in terrible ways. This test to discover whether Job would be faithful was limited by the hand of God. The Book of James explains this testing well in 1:2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” The Heidelberg Catechism explains it thus:
God’s providence is His almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come not by chance but by His fatherly hand (Lord’s Day 10).
So we see then that the Buddhist understands the cause of suffering to arise from peoples’ attitudes and actions. The Christian will agree that one’s cravings and actions can sometimes be the cause of the suffering. But the Christian sees it as arising either because those attitudes and actions are sinful, or as a test brought upon him/her by God for His higher purposes. It is no wonder that Howley states that “nothing can make us joyful in the face of sorrow” because there is no comfort from God for the Buddhist.
3. Can freedom from suffering be secured?
The Buddha’s aim in teaching us about suffering was not to deny that there is beauty and joy in everyday life, but rather to show us how to be happy right now and in the very next moment of this existence. Howley states that, “If it weren’t for a third noble truth, we’d create a god or demon and blame our suffering on that.” Instead, she says that Buddhism leads us to become truly aware of the real condition of existence: “Enjoy what you have now but accept that is already changing. Do no harm to living beings, including yourself. Learn to control your mind by being aware of things as they are, now.”
The similarity with Christianity is that the Bible always implores people to take an accurate and honest look at what is truly happening. But the interpretation of what is truly happening is entirely different! Note the words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 5:8-10:
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
Christians are admonished to control ourselves, and to be aware. We are to watch for the temptations that can come from the devil, and resist them and him, which we learn from other passages is done by regular prayer, Bible reading, and worshipping as a community. We see also that we will suffer, but that after “a little while” God will restore us. Jesus promised in John 17:5-15 that after he left, he would send the “Counselor,” who is the Holy Spirit who would lead us into truth, convict men of sin, and provide comfort as well.
There is an anticipation built up throughout the progression of the Four Noble Truths. We now know the nature of the problem of suffering, and truly, we are eager to find out just exactly what we must do in order to solve it.
4. Which is the path that leads us out of suffering?
The Fourth Noble Truth presents an eightfold path as the way out of suffering. In summary, this path promotes “right views, aims, speech, action, livelihood, perseverance, mindfulness, and meditation.” Mindfulness is the awareness I spoke of, and meditation will be discussed in the next section. Perseverance is just as it says. The first five are further expressed in the Buddha’s “Five Precepts” which were against “lying, stealing, killing, unnatural sexual activity and intoxication.”
It is important to note that these steps and precepts are not considered by Buddhists to be commandments, but rather they are guidelines for beginning a life free from unnecessary suffering. It is thought that we can live happier lives by understanding, not by obeying rules or believing that help comes from “out there” or “up there.” They are given as advice which can be used or ignored; but one must take responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions.
Most Christians can easily see that this path and these precepts correspond to our Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Commandments. And the Precept regarding intoxication is covered in the list of sinful activities in Galatians 5:19-21 as “drunkenness.” Furthermore, Peter tells us in 1 Peter 3:8-9b to “…live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing….” And in 1 Peter 3:10 we read “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.” Clearly, this last verse is the same as number three, “Right Speech.”
So there is some agreement between Buddhists and Christians, therefore, as to how one should interact with other people. Both would agree that there will be less suffering encountered in this lifetime when one lives in harmony with others, and both even agree to a great degree on the description of that harmony.
Does this then mean that the two religions are similar?
In their very essence, they are not. Buddhists look within themselves to find their ease, and do not look to a “god” to provide for them in any way. Christians look to the God who is the Creator of the universe, for our care. We believe he is personally involved with each of us, for “all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move” (Heidelberg Catechism LD 10). The Buddha taught his followers to escape suffering while Jesus showed us the way to go through it. If the Buddhists are right, there is no God to help us; and from the Christian’s viewpoint, the Buddhists are just trying to get by as best as they can because they do not want to bow before Almighty God.
Ravi Zacharias has stated, “Buddhism is a well-thought through belief that is bereft of God. More accurately, it is a philosophy of how one can be good without God, pulling oneself up by one’s own moral bootstraps” (Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks With Buddha). The Buddha said, “Be a light to yourselves,” but Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).
Meditation or Prayer?
Furthermore, Buddhism teaches that one can overcome suffering by right meditation. Buddhist meditation is not a “trance,” but rather a time of becoming more aware of what is going on in your mind. It is a time of not being distracted by other things. The word bhavana actually means development or “culture” as in mental development or mental yoga. This “insight meditation” deals with our bodies, feelings, sensations, the mind, and moral and intellectual subjects. Buddhist meditation develops control of one’s own mind. This is very important because as Howley states: “where the mind goes, the body tends to follow. A controlled mind can be directed skillfully while an uncontrolled mind chatters like a ‘drunken monkey’ and its misperceptions lead to unskillful behavior and unnecessary suffering.”
Thoughts and actions in Buddhism are divided into those which are skillful and those which are unskillful. Skillful ones are those which are the most useful and beneficial, and the least harmful. Karma is the word which describes the accumulated effect of actions. Since they do not believe in sinfulness or commands, this terminology represents the strongest persuasion for our compliance to that which will benefit ourself. With insightful meditation, we move away from our problem temporarily, by reaching deep within ourself, examining the issue carefully, determining how to deal with it, and then putting it behind ourself. There is simply no point to “hanging on” to what was desired since that causes suffering.
When the Bible speaks of meditation, this is not what it means. Meditation in Scripture is on Scripture: it is looking at what God has to say about life and thinking it through so that one might learn to think God’s thoughts after Him.
And Christianity promotes prayer. Prayer is addressed to God the Father through His son Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that Christians “address God as Our Father – To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer that childlike reverence and trust toward God which should be basic to our prayer (LD 46).
Christians pray for Him to be glorified and honored in all of our words, thoughts and actions. We ask for His will to be done and for all of our needs to be provided, our sins to be forgiven, and for strength to fight temptation and the evil one. We conclude by joyfully stating, “For Yours is the kingdom and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
As Ravi Zacharias has written, “Prayer is a constant reminder that the human being is not autonomous…there are cardinal differences between one who prays and one who meditates. One looks beyond and the other looks within.”
A Christian is a person who has realized that he is sinful in and of himself, and he cannot come to God directly because of that sin. Therefore, through God’s Word, he realizes that he needs a Savior. Christians believe that within all men is the knowledge of a Being higher than themselves who created the intricate yet vast universe and all within it, who knows all and is all powerful. We do not believe that we can handle all of life by looking into our sinful selves, nor that we were left to do so by an impersonal Creator. Rather we rejoice in the love that sought us, bought us, and keeps us in His care. We trust His decisions, even when we are suffering, knowing that He has a purpose in that suffering. Unlike the Buddhist nun, who claims that, “nothing can make us joyful in the face of sorrow,” we are able to experience a sense of peace, and even joy in accepting God’s will. James 1:2 encourages us to “consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of any kind,” and 1 Peter 1:6 states “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” It was also mentioned before that 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 spoke of suffering – but it also speaks of God’s strength being applied:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not in despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed.
This is seen by the Christian as a true “letting go” of a situation, but it involves a total trust in God rather than the Buddhist’s “true awareness of the real condition of existence” (Howley).
There is great benefit in understanding God’s providence, because as Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism states:
We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love; for all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move.
This is the Christian’s response to suffering.
At first sight, some might consider that the Buddha and the Christ taught very similar concepts which can be happily used by all people to ease their sufferings. It might even look like meditation and prayer are quite alike, since both seem to be “mind activities.” Even the medical societies are promoting Yoga and meditation for one’s health, although a recent study showed no real improvement in health in those who tried it. Before I studied about Buddhism, I did not realize that it is really the underlying philosophy of so many self-improvement techniques seen all around us.
It is simply not acceptable to view Jesus Christ as just another great teacher similar to the Buddha, for Jesus claimed to be the Son of God who came to save people from their sins. So either He was who He claimed to be, or he was a lunatic not worthy to be followed, for He claimed to be the Son of God. He stated, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Christians believe that suffering can only be ended by coming into a right relationship with God, and this can only be done through Jesus Christ. Suffering ends because it is faced with God’s strength and comfort here in this world, and it ends ultimately when one enters Heaven after death. The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:5 of those who come “having a form of godliness, but denying its power.” Buddhists attempt to bring themselves out of suffering by a type of righteous living, without connecting themselves to the God who created them. In other words, they seek to provide their own salvation from suffering.
Therefore, there is very little similarity between Buddhism and Christianity on the topic of suffering.