Peter Kreeft

Comparing Christianity & Buddhism

The great German Catholic theologian, Romano Guardini, wrote a profoundly insightful and orthodox meditation on the life of Christ entitled The Lord.

In it, he noted that no man in history ever came closer to rivaling the enormity of Christ's claim to transform human nature itself, at its roots, than did Buddha (though in a radically different way).

Huston Smith says in The Religions of Man that there have been only two people in history about whom others asked not "Who are you?" but "What are you: a man or a god?" They were Jesus and Buddha.

Buddha's clear answer was: I am a man, not a god; Christ's clear answer was: I am both "Son of Man" and "Son of God."

Buddha said, "Look not to me, look to my dharma (doctrine)"; Christ said, "Come unto me." Buddha said, "Be ye lamps unto yourselves"; Christ said, "I am the light of the world."

Yet contrary to the original intentions of both men, some later Buddhists (the Pure Land sect) divinized Buddha. And some later Christians (Arians and Modernists) de-divinized Christ.

The claims of Buddha and Christ are in fact so different that we may wonder whether Buddhism can be called a "religion" at all. It does not speak of God, or Brahman, as does Hinduism from which it emerged. Nor does it speak of Atman, or soul. In fact, it teaches the doctrine of an-atta, "no soul"—that we are made of "strands" (skandhas) of impersonal consciousness woven together by causal necessity without any underlying substance, self or soul.

Buddhism does not deny God. It is silent about God. It is agnostic, not atheistic. But it is not silent about soul. Its denial of soul has practical import: It teaches us not to be "attached," not to send our soul out in desire, not to love. Instead of personal, individual, free-willed agape (active love), Buddhism teaches an impersonal, universal feeling of compassion (karuna). Compassion is something we often hear more about than agape in the modern West, for (as Dostoyevsky put it) "love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams."

Karuna and agape lead the disciple to do similar, strikingly selfless deeds—but in strikingly different spirits. Both points are shown by the Buddhist story of a saint who, like St. Martin of Tours, gave his cloak to a beggar. But the Buddhist's explanation was not "because I love you" or "because Christ loves you" but rather: "This is the enlightened thing to do. For if you were freezing and had two gloves on one hand and none on the other hand, would it not be the enlightened thing to do to give one of the gloves to the bare hand?"

The Buddhist point is not the welfare of the recipient, but the liberation of the giver from the burden of self. The same end could be achieved without a recipient. For instance: A man, fleeing a man-eating tiger, came to the edge of a cliff. The only way was down. He found a vine and climbed down it; but there, at the foot of the cliff, was a second man-eating tiger. Then he saw two mice, one black and one white (yin and yang) eating the vine in two above him. Just before it broke, he saw a wild strawberry on the face of the cliff. He plucked it and ate it. It was delicious!

The "unenlightened" will wonder what the point is, or why he didn't distract the tiger with the strawberry. But the "enlightened" will explain the parable thus: "The man tasted to the tiger exactly as the strawberry did to the man." In other words, the man, the tiger and the strawberry are all one Self. The "illusion" of individuality is seen through. There is no soul, so there is no fear—no fear of death because there is no one there to die.

For Buddhism, egotism (selfish desire) causes the illusion of an ego. For the West, secular as well as religious, a real ego is the cause and egotism is the effect. Agape is a different effect from the same cause: altruism from the ego instead of egotism from the ego. To the Buddhist, agape is impossible; there can be no ego without egotism, no self without selfishness, because the self is not a real cause that might conceivably change its effect. Rather, the self is the illusion—effect of selfishness. There's nobody there to love or to hate.

How can this apparent nihilism, this philosophy of nothingness, feel liberating to Buddhists? The answer is found in Buddha himself: his personality and the events of his life, especially his "great enlightenment."

Like Jesus, Buddha taught a very shocking message. And, like Jesus, Buddha was believed only because of his personality. "Holy to his fingertips" is how he is described. If you or I said what Buddha or Jesus said, we would be laughed at. There was something deep and moving there that made the incredible credible.

The events of Buddha's life are dramatic and offer a clue to this "something." It is not, however, Buddha's life or his personality that are central to Buddhism; there could be a Buddhism without Buddha. There could not, of course, be a Christianity without Christ.

"Buddha" is a title, not a given name—like "Christ" ("Messiah"). It is his essential claim; for it means "the enlightened one" or "the one who woke up." Buddha claims we are all spiritually asleep until the experience of Enlightenment, or Awakening. Here is the story of how Buddha became Buddha, of how a man woke up.

Born Gautama Siddhartha, son of a king who hoped the prince would become the most successful king in India's history, he was protected in a palace of earthly delights to make kingship irresistibly attractive to him. But curiosity led him to sneak away into the forbidden world outside, where he saw the Four Distressing Sights. The first three were a sick man, an old man and a dead man. Gautama puzzled deeply over these newly discovered mysteries of sickness, old age and death—to no avail. Then came the fourth sight: a begging ascetic who had renounced the world to seek Enlightenment. Gautama decided to do the same.

He spent years meditating on life's deepest mystery: Why is man unhappy? After years of torturing his body to free his soul, all in vain, he decided on the "Middle Way" between his earlier self-indulgence and his later self-torture. Taking a decent meal for the first time in years, he sat in full lotus position under the sacred bodhi tree in Benares and resolved not to rise until he was enlightened. When he rose he proclaimed that he was Buddha. He had broken through the great mystery of life.

The breakthrough had to be experienced, not just verbalized. Buddhism is not essentially a doctrine but an experience. Yet Buddha verbalized a doctrine (dharma): the Four Noble Truths summarized everything he taught. Whenever he was pressed by his disciples to go beyond the Four Noble Truths, he refused. Everything else was "questions not tending to edification."

The First Noble Truth is that all of life is dukkha, suffering. The word means "out-of-joint-ness" or separation—something very similar to "sin," but without the personal, relational dimension: not a broken relationship but a broken consciousness. Inner brokenness is Buddhism's "bad news" that precedes its gospel or "good news."

The Second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is tanha, "grasping," selfish desire. We suffer because of the gap between what we want and what we have. This gap is created by our dissatisfaction, our wanting to get what we do not have or wanting to keep what we do have (e.g., life, which causes fear of death). Thus desire is the villain for Buddha, the cause of all suffering.

This explains the "no soul" doctrine. Desire creates the illusion of a desirer alienated from the desired object, the illusion of twoness. Enlightenment is the "extinction" of this illusion. "I want that" creates the illusion of an "I" distinct from the "that"; and this distinction is the cause of suffering. Desire is thus the fuel of suffering's fire.

The Third Noble Truth follows inevitably. To remove the cause is to remove the effect, therefore suffering can be extinguished (nirvana) by extinguishing its cause, desire. Remove the fuel and you put out the fire.

The Fourth Noble Truth tells you how to extinguish desire: by the "Noble Eightfold Path" of ego-reduction in each of life's eight defined areas, inward and outward (e.g., "right thought:" "right associations," etc.).

The content of the Four Noble Truths is specifically Buddhist, but the form is universal. Every religion, every practical philosophy, every therapy, spiritual or physical, has its Four Noble Truths: the symptoms, the diagnosis, the prognosis and the prescription. They are the bad effect, the bad cause, the good effect and the good cause, respectively.

For example, Marxism's Four Noble Truths are: class conflict, capitalism. communism and revolution. Christianity's are: death, sin, Christ and salvation.

The most crucial of the four steps is the second. The patient knows his own symptoms, but only a trained doctor can diagnose the hidden cause, the disease. Once diagnosed, most diseases have a standard prognosis and prescription which can be looked up in a medical textbook.

On this crucial issue—the diagnosis of the human problem—Christianity and Buddhism seem about as far apart as possible. For where Buddha finds our desires too strong, Christ finds them too weak. He wants us to love more, not less: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Buddha "solves" the problem of pain by a spiritual euthanasia: curing the disease of egotism and the suffering it brings by killing the patient, the ego, self, soul or I-image of God in man.

Yet perhaps things are not quite as contradictory as that. For the "desire" Buddha speaks of is only selfish desire. He does not distinguish unselfish love (agape) from selfish love (eros); he simply does not know agape at all. He profoundly knows and condemns the desire to possess something less than ourselves, like money, sex or power, but he does not know the desire to be possessed by something more than ourselves. Buddha knows greed, but not God. And surely we Westerners, whose very lives and economic systems are based on greed, need to hear Buddha when he speaks about what he knows and what we have forgotten.

But Buddhists even more desperately need to hear what they do not know: the news about God and His love.

From Fundamentals of the Faith by Ignatius Press.