“And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (The Holy Bible Mark 16.15). The noble call for Christians to spread the good news of the Gospel has been around for decades; however, not many people know how to successfully share their beliefs with people from other religions and cultures and in effect end up offending them instead of effectively sharing the Gospel with them. It is important for Christians to have a basis of interfaith understanding so that they can better relate to adherents of other religions. Interfaith understanding also opens the door for Christians to share the Gospel with other religions. Almost every religion has vestiges or traces of Christianity within it even if it is as basic as having a monotheistic belief. Christians need to be aware of what those vestiges are so that they can use those commonalities as contact points to share the Christian Gospel with adherents of other religions because it is much easier to relate to someone if they share commonalities. Many Christians think that Buddhism is drastically different from Christianity. This is true to some extent, however, the two do have some similarities and the Buddhist religion has many positive aspects to it, contrary to common belief. This paper strives to highlight some of the commonalities and doctrines that Christianity and Buddhism share in hopes to provide a guide for Christians to better relate to and share the Gospel with Buddhists. In effect this will not only advance the spread and work of the Gospel, but will also serve to foster peace within and between different people as well as world religions.
The fourth largest religion in the world, Buddhism, has been around for a long time. It dates back to the life of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE), who became the Buddha or “enlightened one” (Cantwell 68, Tennent 90). Buddhism originated in northeast India, modern day Nepal. Hinduism was the dominant religion at the time and Gautama aspired to reform it which resulted in the founding of Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition is too complex to cover all the similarities between it and Christianity. As a result, I will outline a few of the main points such as The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, and Nirvana.
The main and most important doctrine of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths, which are outlined in the teachings of Buddha himself. The first noble truth declares that all life is suffering and affirms the “cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth” similar to the Hindu tradition of Karma (Tennent 91). From the Christian perspective, there is suffering on earth as a result of human sin. The Apostle Paul states, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (The Holy Bible Romans 3.23). God did not intend there to be suffering, but man chose to go his own way and humans have been serving the consequences ever since. The second noble truth of Buddhism describes that the cause of this suffering is the result of attachment and desire of things such as pleasure and power. From a Christian perspective, this does not seem so far from the truth. Based on the Bible we know that man is a fallen creature because of his sins. Cursed under sin, all humans have sinful desires which can relate to the “desires” that Buddhism is referring to. These doctrines could be commonalities between the two religions and serve as a contact point for conversational or evangelical purposes.
The third noble truth emphasizes the solution to suffering which is to “extinguish the flame of desire that burns in each of us” (Tennent 91). This is similar to leaving behind one’s old ways and embracing the new life that God has prepared for him from the Christian perspective. In Ephesians chapter four, verses twenty-two through twenty-four the Apostle Paul states “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (The Holy Bible Eph. 4.22). The only way to escape suffering is to give up one’s sinful ways and follow Jesus. The fourth noble truth introduces the Eightfold Path which is the Buddhist path to extinguishing these unpleasant desires. The Eightfold Path outlines the eight areas in a person’s life that must be subdued in order to suppress all desires. “According to early sources, everything is conditioned and subject to change; however, people ignorant of this become attached to impermanent things. The only cure is the ‘noble eightfold path,’ a set of methods encompassing morality, wisdom and meditation” (Cantwell 69). In short, all life is suffering. Suffering is caused from attachment or desire/greed. If people let go of their desires, they will become enlightened and reach Nirvana, a state of steady existence and calm. The Buddhist tradition claims that one can find redemption and liberation from within. Christians believe that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ, but when one becomes saved, Jesus resides within that person. The similarities between Christianity and Buddhism in regards to these doctrines can provide an opportunity for interfaith dialogue.
Another Buddhist doctrine is The Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path, which was preached by Buddha, is similar to the beatitudes which Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount. The Eightfold Path includes the Right Understanding, Right Motivation, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. These are similar to the beatitudes where Jesus preaches. For example, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (The Holy Bible Matt. 5.6), which could be related to the Buddhist doctrine of Right Understanding and Right Motivation. Again, “blessed are the peacemakers” (The Holy Bible Matt. 5.9) stated by Jesus could be related to the Buddhist saying Right Action. There is not a direct correlation, but there is a definite similarity. This could be another contact point for Christians to witness to Buddhists about Jesus.
Unlike the Christian belief that faith in Jesus will grant one’s entrance to heaven (The Holy Bible John 3.16), Buddhism believes that the ultimate goal is to reach Nirvana. There is discrepancy over what Nirvana actually means, but some Buddhist scholars claim that it is “that condition of absolute calm and freedom from all wish, will, or feeling in which we crave nothing, not even rest; in which pleasure and pain are the same to us, and we learn to look on space, matter, intelligence, ideas… as none of them real or true” (Bixby 312). According to Buddhist teaching, Nirvana is the only thing which is permanent. It has been questioned whether the person who achieves Nirvana still exists or whether he simply ceases to exist. This notion has been disputed by Buddha’s followers and many scholars (Bixby 312). Simply put, Nirvana is a mystery. Nirvana – when someone is cleansed of all their dirty desires – is similar to the process of conversion for Christians. For Christianity, conversion happens when someone confesses their sins and repents to Jesus asking for forgiveness for their sins. 1 John 1:7 states “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin” (The Holy Bible 1 John 1.7). This verse shows that Christians must seek forgiveness if they want Jesus to cleanse them. Although the beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity are different, there is similarity in that one must be cleansed which can help the two find common ground. The difference is in who is doing the cleansing and of what they are cleansing the person.
In addition to having similarities in some doctrines, Christians could learn a few valuable actions from their Buddhist brothers and sisters. For example, the Buddhist ritual of mediation which includes techniques for calming the mind and increasing mindful awareness can be a beneficial practice for Christians (Bixby 317). Although the motive for meditation within Buddhism is to cleanse oneself, and Christians should trust God to cleanse them, it is still important that Christians take the time to slow down and meditate on scripture. Similarly, Buddhists also have a history of making peace with their neighboring countries and villages making them less hostile and crime is less frequent (Bixby 315). Buddhism also impacted social liberation and reform, by founding hospitals, abolishing the capital punishment (Bixby 315) and worked to abolish the Hindu caste system by claiming that all are equal (Krishan 41). What a testimony! Christians should strive to have this kind of impact on our societies and cultures as well.
Now that some commonalities have been presented, it is beneficial to make an important distinction between the two religions. Unlike Christianity which is filled with hope and joy, the Buddhist religion is hopeless because the only way out of the cycle of suffering is to look within one’s self. From the Christian perspective, the only thing within unsaved humans is evil and sin. This can be important for Christians to understand before they attempt to make interfaith dialogue. In addition, Buddhism is simply a way for people to try and escape suffering. “Noble and heroic as Buddhist ethics seem at first glance, they are, therefore, essentially selfish” (Bixby 317). Buddhists are trying to escape suffering by their own means and self inherent power. These aspects of Buddhism are different from Christianity and are significant for Christians to be aware of and address to avoid misunderstandings within dialogue. Without God as the creator and supplier, all life is suffering. God alone provides the antidote to human suffering.
In conclusion, Buddhism and Christianity share some common doctrines which can serve as contact points for interfaith dialogue. Buddhism also has aspects which Christians can learn and benefit from such as meditation. Through Buddhism, Christians can gain insight into what other religions believe and think about the deep questions of life. Knowing the main history and doctrines of Buddhism can help Christians perform interfaith dialogue and have compassion on adherents of other religions. It can also help them approach other people with a goal of peacekeeping and peacemaking. Without positive communication between people groups and religions, peace between them cannot grow.