The truth of Buddhism

I want to begin this post with a bit of a confession. As a teenager, I was, as many American teenagers are, very interested by Eastern religions. The picture of reality, of humanity, and of the divine that religious systems like Hinduism, Taosim, and Buddhism presented seemed to offer a much more agreeable alternative to what seemed the spiritual dryness of the West. As they were commonly presented, these Eastern religions encompassed great mystical traditions, lacked the judgmental tyrant-in-the-sky view of God stereotypical of American “Christianity,” and were much more amiable to modern science. While Christianity was the home of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other related religions were about a deeper view of the nature of the world and of mankind, about peace and gentle spirituality. That is the viewpoint commonly propounded by apologists of Eastern religions for Western audiences, and that is the viewpoint I held to until I started to look deeper and found the Holy Orthodox Church and the wealth of spiritual heritage that it carries with it.

The point of this post is not to try to refute these common assumptions about either Eastern religions (which, however, are not quite what idealizing Western converts would like to think) or about Christianity (though I’ve done other posts on some of those topics and I think such an understanding of Christianity refutes itself with any knowledge about the Apostolic Faith and the Orthodox Church). I only mention these common misunderstandings of Christianity and Eastern religions to give a little background information for this post and why I am writing it.

Amongst the Eastern religions, it was especially Buddhism which attracted me. The Buddha himself was, for me, a very impressive figure in many ways: his determination and nirvana-or-nuthin’ attitude in his search for spiritual truth, his all-embracing compassion for the world, his systematic, scientific worldview and guidance for spiritual attainment — all of this was moving and fascinating to me. And it still is. Here’s an even bigger confession: I still think that the Buddha was right. That’s right, I’m a Christian and I still believe that Buddhism is correct in its view of the world and of man. In fact, becoming a Christian brought me to appreciate the depth and truth of Buddhism even more than I had as a teenage spiritual dabbler. I’ll explain.

Buddhism is unlike other religions in many ways; perhaps one of the most obvious and noticeable of these differences is that Buddhism, unlike nearly all other religions, has no “creation story.” Instead of a story about the creation of the world, of man, and of how the world and man got to be the way they are, Buddhism tells the story of the Buddha himself, of this particular man and his realization of the world as it is.

As the story goes, the Buddha was raised intentionally sheltered by his father, a king. The Buddha was kept by his father from seeing any decay, death, illness, or ugliness; he was instead surrounded with the young, the beautiful, and the pleasurable. On several successive trips outside of the palace, however, the Buddha came across four sights that shocked him and changed his life forever: a sick person, an elderly person, a dead person, and a Hindu ascetic. As he encountered each sight, the Buddha turned to his trusted friend with him and asked what they were. His friends replies shook the Buddha’s world: “that person is ill, all people suffer from disease;” “that person is old, all people will someday grow old;” “that person is dead, all people will someday die;” and finally “that person is an ascetic, he is searching for the way beyond sickness, old age, and death.”

This story of the Buddha is not only the story of one man who lived 2500 years ago. It is probably not even historically accurate. It is, however, not intended to be. The Buddha’s story is the story of every person who grows up and looks at the world around him. Children are generally unaware of what we might called the “hard facts of life.” For them, everything is play and the play seems like it will never end. But as they grow up, they begin to see that life is not all fun and games. They see their grandmother sick and they see that they too can and will get sick; they see that their grandmother is old and frail and, eventually, they realize that they too will one day be that way; and, finally, their grandmother passes away and they see this thing called “death” and, eventually, they realize that they too will one day die. These realizations might not come in great “sights” and profound realizations as they did with the Buddha, but these are realizations that every human being has as they grow up.

The creation story of Christianity, in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, provides much the same effect and could act just as easily as an allegory for what we all experience while coming of age. Adam and Eve, the first humans, having lived thus far in innocence and simplicity, eat of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil.” As a result, they are expelled from Paradise; suffering, decay, pain, and toil enter their world. Eve, the woman, is told that she will have children only with much pain and that her husband will have authority over her; she has become an adult woman. Adam, the man, is told that he will only be able to provide food for himself and his family with never-ending and hard labor; he has become an adult man. The final and profoundest curse pronounced against them is death: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The creation stories of Buddhism and of Christianity are very different in time, place, and setting, but the message is the same: now that we’ve grown up, we have to face facts: we’re going to get sick, we’re going to get old, and we’re going to die. And yet in each of these creation stories there is also a ray of hope that shines through. In the Buddhist story, the Buddha sees the ascetic, the one who is looking for a way beyond illness, old age, and death. In the Christian story, God says to the serpent, the one who had brought all of this upon Adam and Eve by tempting them to eat of the tree, that he “will put enmity between your seed and her Seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall be on guard for His heel” (Genesis 3:15). God has promised a Seed to Eve, One to come who will crush the serpent, undoing what he has done and saving humanity from illness, old age, and death.

The respective foundational stories of Buddhism and Christianity continue, each retelling events that are very different from the other and which nonetheless seem to each point to the same truth. If there is one uniting element in the stories of the Christian Old Testament, one particular facet that can be found in each of them, it is that man constantly reaches for the divine and yet falls short every time. Each of even the prophets and other great and holy men of the Old Testament eventually stumbles; each of them is eventually shown to be a sinner. The overarching theme of the various Old Testament stories, which span a period of thousands of years, is man’s inability to bridge the gap between man and God.

The moral of the continuation of the Buddha’s story is nearly the same. After witnessing the four sights, the Buddha departs from his pampered life in his father’s palace and retreats to the forest to take up the life of a Hindu ascetic, seeking an escape from illness, old age, and death. During this time, he studies under various revered gurus and masters nearly ever ascetic practice available to him. He achieves profound mystical states. And yet he is satisfied with none of this. He still suffers, he is still bound to grow sick, to grow old, and to die. He reaches a breaking point. He has nearly starved himself to death and tortured his body in various other ways; the Buddhist texts record that he had become so emaciated from his extreme asceticism that he could touch his spine by poking his stomach. Finally, he sits down under a tree, swears that he will not move from that spot until he either dies or achieves enlightenment (the state of moving beyond suffering), and he meditates.

As the name “Buddha” (“enlightened/awakened one”) indicates, he did indeed achieve his goal; he reached enlightenment and experienced nirvana, the state of cessation of suffering. Having achieved this goal, he went off to teach others how to achieve it as well. His first sermon, given to a group of fellow ascetics who had been his friends, lays out the profound truths that the Buddha had realized, truths which also form the foundation of the Christian life.

These foundational teachings of the Buddha are called the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Eightfold Path.” The first of the Noble Truths is that suffering is implicit in all aspects of life; even the greatest joy will eventually fade because everything on earth is temporal. According to the Buddha:

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of pain: birth is painful; old age is painful; sickness is painful; death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful; not getting what one wishes is painful. In short the five groups of grasping are painful.

This, as we have already seen, is similarly the starting point of Christianity. Turning again to the third chapter of Genesis, we find nearly the same content in God’s words to Adam and Eve after their fall (Genesis 3:16-19):

To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

After establishing this fundamental and foundational truth, both Buddhism and Christianity then look for the source of this suffering and both find it in the same place. The Buddha’s second Noble Truth is that this suffering is caused by, in Pali, “tanha.” The literal meaning of the word is “thirst” but most English translations translate it as “desire.” Desire, however, is not nearly a strong enough word to convey the Buddha’s full meaning; a better word might be “craving.” The equivalent word used by the Christian fathers and ascetics is, in Greek, “pathos,” which is translated into English as the “passions.” Both tanha and pathos refer to the cravings and emotions that overwhelm the souls of human beings.

The Buddha listed three forms of tanha:

  1. Craving for pleasure
  2. Craving for existence
  3. Craving for non-existence

The early monastic saints of Christianity similarly compiled a list of the passions, eight in number:

  1. Gluttony
  2. Lust
  3. Covetousness
  4. Anger
  5. Dejection
  6. Despondency
  7. Vainglory
  8. Pride

As we can see, although the content of the lists is expressed differently yet again the message is the same. These pathos/tanhas are the underlying reason for human suffering.

The Buddha’s third Noble Truth is that there is a way that leads beyond suffering, beyond illness, old age, and death. With this again Christianity is in agreement. It is with the Buddha’s fourth Noble Truth that Christianity and Buddhism finally find disagreement, or so it seems. Rather, I think that the Buddha’s fourth Noble Truth, in which he lays out the means by which suffering can be overcome, is not incorrect but incomplete. The Buddha’s fourth Noble Truth is that the way to overcome the passions and end suffering is the Eightfold Path:

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

In all of this, the Buddha was correct. Following these precepts can lead to nirvana, the state of cessation of craving and so of suffering. But it cannot lead one beyond illness, old age, and death in themselves. The Buddha himself, in fact, died at 80 years old from a sickness resulting from eating a portion of spoiled pork; in other words, he got old, he got sick, and he died. But, almost 500 years after the Buddha’s lifetime something remarkable happened, a key and essential ingredient was added, which the Buddha, because of his time and place, was unaware of: God became man. He was born, crucified, died, and resurrected — freeing us all from illness, from old age, and, ultimately, from death. We must continue to struggle with our passions, our craving, our tanha, but there is a new dynamic: the grace of God.

Buddhism, then, is not incorrect, it is incomplete. The Buddha was a remarkable man and he attained to the greatest measure of understanding of the world, of humanity, and of the unique human predicament of any of the ancient philosophers and wise man. This is a truly astounding achievement on his part, given that he was entirely cut off even from the revelation of God given to Israel in the Old Testament. It is no wonder that even the early Christian Church Fathers gave recognition to the holiness of the Buddha; just as were many of the Greek philosophers and the prophets of Israel, the Buddha can undoubtedly be counted amongst those who were “Christians before Christ.” Jesus Christ, however, is the completion of the great dilemma that the Buddha attempted to resolve; ultimately, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Buddhism.

“Every individual instinctively strives for happiness. This desire has been implanted in our nature by the Creator Himself, and therefore it is not sinful. But it is important to understand that in this temporary life it is impossible to find full happiness, because that comes from God and cannot be attained without Him. Only He, who is the ultimate Good and the source of all good, can quench our thirst for happiness.” – St. Innocent of Alaska, Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven

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8 comments

  1. No. Some aspects of Buddhism and Christianity are similar, but they have a fundamental different view on the nature of man, the nature of ultimate reality, the nature of suffering, not to mention God (in one God is the center, in the other God, if he exists, is an optional distraction).

    I don't want to get into a polemic, but you might be interested in a comparison of the Christian and Stoic views on suffering. Stoics and Buddhists see suffering the essentially same way (although they have different solutions).

    http://www3.dbu.edu/naugle/pdf/stoic_christian_views.pdf

  2. Excellent article. There were many efforts before Christ to lead us in the right direction. They are all fulfilled by the Incarnation, the God-man, and we are blessed now with His Church and her sacraments.
    Thanks for taking the thoughtful time to tell this story.

  3. Robert: I understand and agree that there is substantial difference between Christianity and Buddhism, and, at that, one some essential points. I don't think, however, that this negates the point of my post here. I think, in fact, that I addressed exactly the differences that you bring up, such as God, the ultimate nature and goal of man, and the overcoming of suffering (rather than its mere endurance).

    It is significant that you reference the Stoics. As the Patristic tradition of the Church has shown us (and as is even evidenced in the New Testament writings' use of Greek philosophical terminology and ideas and, of course, the Greek language itself) Christianity is the fulfillment and completion of Hellenism. Though the ancient Jews had the special revelation of God, the Greeks (and, I believe, the Buddhists and others) possessed those “seeds of the Word” (as the Fathers called them), foreshadowings and premonitions of Christ. Since Christianity is the Truth, I would expect nothing less from someone who honestly and deeply investigates the nature of reality than to, the closer he comes to understanding that, come close to Christianity in many respects. Revelation is, of course, necessary for the completion of that understanding — and that is, partially, the point of this post.

  4. There's a lot of wisdom and grace in Buddhism–I agree with the author about that. But the two religions are fundamentally incompatible–Buddhism is about unattaching ourselves from what we love so that we may be freed from selfhood and absorbed into nothingness, while Christianity is about loving more perfectly so that we can become the self God intends us to be. More love, not less, fullness of selfhood, not emptiness.

    One place they do come together, though, is in the 4 Noble Truths. Love does lead to suffering–no doubt about it. One only has to look at the cross to see that. The difference is that Buddhists deal with that truth by saying, “Get rid of love,” while Christians say, “Bear the suffering for the sake of the love.”

  5. A friend sent me a passage from St. Nikolai Velimirovic's “Prayers by the Lake” (XLVIII) in regards to this post. I thought those who read my post might also like to read this:

    “All the prophets have from the beginning cried out to my soul, imploring her to make herself a virgin and prepare herself to receive the Divine Son into her immaculate womb;

    Imploring her to become a ladder, down which God will descend into the world, and up which man will ascend to God,

    Imploring her to drain the red sea of sanguinary passions within herself, so that man the slave can cross over to the promised land, the land of freedom.

    The wise man of China admonishes my soul to be peaceful and still, and to wait for Tao to act within her. Glory be the memory of Lao-tse, the teacher and prophet of his people!

    The wise man of India teaches my soul not to be afraid of suffering, but through the arduous and relentless drilling in purification and prayer to elevate herself to the One on high, who will come out to greet her and manifest to her His face and His power. Glorious be the memory of Krishna, the teacher and prophet of his people!

    The royal son of India teaches my soul to empty herself completely of every seed and crop of the world, to abandon all the serpentine allurements of frail and shadowy matter, and then in vacuity, tranquility, purity and bliss to await nirvana. Blessed be the memory of Buddha, the royal son and inexorable teacher of his people!

    The thunderous wise man of Persia tells my soul that there is nothing in the world except light and darkness, and that the soul must break free from the darkness as the day does from the night. For the sons of light are conceived from the light, and the sons of darkness are conceived from darkness. Glorious be the memory of Zoroaster, the great prophet of his people!

    The prophet of Israel cries out to my soul: Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, whose name will be the God-man. Glorious be the memory of Isaiah, the clairvoyant prophet of my soul!

    O heavenly Lord, open the hearing of my soul, lest she become deaf to the counsels of Your messenger.

    Do not slay the prophets sent to you, my soul, for their graves contain not them, but those who slew them.

    Wash and cleanse yourself; become tranquil amid the turbulent sea of the world, and keep within yourself the counsels of the prophets sent to you. Surrender yourself entirely to the One on high and say to the world: “I have nothing for you.”

    Even the most righteous of the sons of men, who believe in you, are merely feeble shadows which, like the righteous Joseph, walk in your shadow. For mortality begets mortality and not life. Truly I say to you: earthly husbands are mistaken when they say that they give life. They do not give it but ruin it. They push life into the red sea and drown it, and beforehand they wrap it in darkness and make it a diabolical illusion. There is no life, O soul, unless it comes from the Holy Spirit. Nor is there any reality in the world, unless it comes down from heaven.

    Do not slay the prophets sent to you, my soul, for killing is only an illusion of shadows. Do not kill, for you can slay no one but yourself.

    Be a virgin, my soul, for virginity of the soul is the only semi-reality in a world of shadows. A semi-reality until God is born within her. Then the soul becomes a full reality.

    Be wise, my virgin, and cordially receive the precious gifts of the wise men from the East, intended for your Son. Do not glance back toward the West, where the sun sets, and do not crave gifts that are figmental and false.”

  6. I'm a closeted Augustinian Jain. 🙂

    In all these Spiritual struggles and ascetic labors, pride is the greatest enemy, although it (unlike other more carnal sins) has no problem disguising itself as an Angel of light (Job 1:6, 2:1; 2 Corinthians 11:14). And other less carnal sins are sometimes harder to conquer than the gross and more carnal ones.

    I see you no longer link to our Apologetics site in your side-bar.

  7. Nice essay. One comment regarding this passage:

    “In all of this, the Buddha was correct. Following these precepts can lead to nirvana, the state of cessation of craving and so of suffering. But it cannot lead one beyond illness, old age, and death in themselves. The Buddha himself, in fact, died at 80 years old from a sickness resulting from eating a portion of spoiled pork; in other words, he got old, he got sick, and he died.”

    From a Buddhist perspective, the Buddha chose (in a previous life) to undergo this last lifetime in which He would be born, get sick and old, and die — not because He had to do so, but because out of compassion for suffering beings who knew not the way to the Deathless (Nirvana). The Buddha could have entered the Deathless eons ago, but He chose to experience lifetimes of births, old ages, illnesses, and deaths, in order to teach all others the victory over death, during His final lifetime as the Buddha.

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