Monday, July 24, 2006

Buddhism and Christianity

I recently made a 5-day trip to Bangkok for a research meeting with Chulalongkorn University professors and researchers. To maximize the trip, I and two of my friends went to the old capital of the country, Ayutthaya, to visit historic Buddhist temples. I had no idea what I was going to witness until I saw and touched the ruins of the former capital. Buddhist temples in Ayutthaya showcase the historical roots of the Thais. All of them house Buddha icons and, some, monks’ sculptures, which built the old structures. The capital of Thailand was transferred to Bangkok when Burmese intruders destroyed and desecrated Ayutthaya in 1800s.

Buddhism can be classified as a moral philosophy which its followers strictly adhere to. It teaches that man should not do evil, to cultivate good, and to purify one's mind. Many prominent personalities accepted Buddhism including the singer Tina Turner, Phil Jackson (coach of the Los Angeles Lakers), Richard Gere, and Steven Seagal. The Dalai Lama has become a prominent spiritual figure for many throughout the world. It has also influenced the lives of the Thais in many areas. Its teachings can be easily discerned from the values of the people. Bangkok has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. No doubt it has become a major tourist capital.

The Basics of Buddhism

Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the Sakya tribe of Nepal, in approximately 566 BC. He left the comforts of his status when he was 29 years old, to seek answers about the nature of suffering in the world. He found the answer after 6 years of arduous yogic training. Siddharta Gautama became Buddha, the Enlightened One” under a bodhi tree on a full moon of May. He wandered the plains of northeastern India for 45 years more to teach the path he discovered, the Dharma. He sought to answer the question, "Why is there pain and suffering?" Buddhism teaches four noble truths: 1) Life is suffering; 2) Suffering is due to attachment to the things of the world; 3) Attachment can be overcome; and 4) There is a path for accomplishing this.

Buddhists’ concept of “duhkha” or suffering explains the imperfect, stressful and brutish world. For them, there is suffering in the world because of the uncontrollable cravings of man (e.g. sexual pleasures, gluttony, pride). This inevitable condition is exacerbated by the interconnected nature of things. Nothing has a separate existence. This is the reason why Buddhists cannot afford to act, think, speak or accomplish things in evil ways because they may affect the positive flow of things. Their concept of “karma” is so important that they are really cautious even the way they think about people. Buddhism teaches that attachment to the world can be overcome through rigorous self-discipline. Buddhist monks’ lifestyle is bound by many “Thou shall not…”. They have to adhere to over 225 regulations which forbid them to do many things. Thai monks are often seen in temples reading the teachings of Buddha. They are not allowed to have their own family (if they already have one, they must renounce their family relationships), not permitted to worldly entertainment, must not drink liquor, and even have a job that could be harmful to others (thus, many of them depend on dole-outs and alms given by the faithful in temples). The regulations are summarized in the Eightfold path which undeniably, privileges human agency:1) Right view is the true understanding of the four noble truths: 2) Right aspiration or true desire to free oneself from attachment, ignorance, and hatefulness; 3) Right speech involves abstaining from lying, gossiping, or hurtful talk; 4) Right action involves abstaining from hurtful behaviors, such as killing, stealing, and careless sex; 5) Right livelihood means making your living in such a way as to avoid dishonesty and hurting others, including animals; 6) Right effort is a matter of exerting oneself in regards to the content of one's mind: Bad qualities should be abandoned and prevented from arising again; Good qualities should be enacted and nurtured; 7) Right mindfulness is the focusing of one's attention on one's body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in such a way as to overcome craving, hatred, and ignorance; and 8)Right concentration is meditating in such a way as to progressively realize a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness.

Buddha and Jesus Compared

Thais do not really consider Buddha as a god but rather as a great teacher. Buddhism does not believe in a personal God or a divine being. This is the reason why it does not have worship, praying to, or praising of a divine being. It does not believe in Christianity’s concept of sin, redemption, forgiveness, heavenly hope, resurrection, among others. If some Buddhist sects believe in a personal God, it is pantheistic in nature (the belief that God is an impersonal force keeping things in the world in order).

Many scholars have compared Buddha with Jesus in many ways. They claim that since Buddha was the Awakened One Jesus became Anointed One. Some even go further by saying that Buddhist teachings inspired the sermons of Jesus Christ. Hence, there are mechanisms that we can harmonize the teachings of both traditions. Some Christians even think that there is little difference between Christianity and Buddhism. I beg to disagree.

It must be noted that Buddha emerged during a time when the people were tired of Hindu sects, castes and teachings. He both promoted new teachings and discarding others. In contrast, Christ came in Israel’s history where the Jewish people were desperate for a Savior. But unlike, Buddha, Jesus only fulfilled what was already written in the Scriptures by confirming God’s prophecies and revelations.

Buddha focused on bringing about the best in him. His passive outlook of humanity is far different from Jesus’ active concern for mankind. Christ became the “friend of sinners” and epitomized a man full of love who has been touching the lives of many. Buddha died in the old age 80 while Christ was resurrected from the dead and continues to transform lives of many people around the globe.

Buddha tried to understand the sufferings of man by detaching himself from the world. On the contrary, Christ addressed the suffering of man, corrupted by sin, by offering Himself as a ransom for man’s sins (Romans 5:8). Buddha relied on his efforts to find answers to his perplexing inquiries. Jesus has made man realize that answers can only come from his Creator. Christ does not need to search for wisdom because He is the wisdom and power of God (2 Corinthians 2).

One major difference between Christianity and Buddhism is the acknowledgement of a divine being. On one hand, Thereavada, one of Buddhism’s sacred texts, says Buddha did not claim to have a special relationship with God. He was not divine. On the other hand, Christ does not only know the mind and nature of God, but He is God himself (John 1:14). He is a God who became man. (Phil. 2:5).

Buddhism directs people to Nirvana, an ultimate state in the afterlife, while Jesus offers eternal life which is a free gift for man. Buddha showed the way to nirvana, but it was up to each follower to find his or her own path. Christ did not come to show the way; He claimed to be the way (John 14:6). Also, Buddhists believe there are many ways to God. He must only follow the Dharma to find the real path. However, the Bible declares that Christ’s death on the cross has provided a way for man to be reconciled to God. Christianity declares, “It is done”, while Buddhism emphasizes, “You have to work for it.”

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