A Brief Christian Response

As silly as it may sound to you and me, there are always people who try to ignore obvious distinctions. One fictional instance that comes to mind is the clever representative of humanity in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who "goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing." (NY: Pocketbooks, 1979, p. 60) Black is not white, nor is white black, and if we may continue on with that same logic (also called "common sense"), we may further state confidently that Theravada Buddhism is not Christianity, and that Christianity is not Theravada Buddhism. 

One of the unacceptable results of various contemporary attempts at "pluralism" and "inclusivism" is that they try to strait-jacket obviously different religions into some supposed common core, which slashes away what the adherents of the religions themselves believe. Let us maintain the integrity of each religion. There is no Theravada Christianity, nor was the Buddha an early inconsistent Christian. Nor do either venerate "The Real." (See also Stewart Redi's observations on the even more far-fetched attempts to make Jesus and Gautama out to be the same person. Most of us recognize that contradictions are not an indication of how deep someone's thoughts are, but that they are false.)

Let me clarify what I'm saying by pointing out the differences between the two religions. But please, I must ask you to keep in mind that, by itself, this matter has nothing to do with truth or falsehood. You may or may not believe the content of either religion; the point is that you cannot believe both at the same time and in the same sense. It is theoretically possible that two statements can be inconsistent with each other and both be false (e.g., "All cows are black." & "No cows are black.").

Both religions have different purposes: For Theravada Buddhism it is to escape suffering by recognizing the unreality of one's self, as taught by the Buddha. For Christianity it is to be forgiven for one's sin and to be reconciled to God on the basis of Christ's death and resurrection.

The historical founders of each of the two religions also play different roles. In Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha is primarily someone who has realized and then shown others the way towards enlightenment (the Tathagata), as well as someone who has taught people how to live virtuously so as to receive blessings and merit. However, in his teachings the Buddha has shown that each person has to come to his or her own enlightenment; he has not performed an action on behalf of any person that would have made them an arhat. The Buddha's actions are important in disclosing the dharma, but not in influencing our spiritual state. Nor is he thought to be unique. Even Theravada Buddhism, anticipating Mahayana's multitude of divine beings, already held that there were many Buddhas in many ages (see the listing and discussion on the 28 early Buddhas). For Christianity, on the other hand, Jesus' teachings are important, but they would not mean anything apart from his unique life, death, and resurrection.

In Theravada Buddhism enlightenment is available only to those who devote their lives to its pursuit, the bikhus, who must apply themselves hard in order to attain it. Christianity teaches that any human being can receive full salvation by recognizing their sinfulness and inability to save themselves and having faith in (i.e. trusting in and relying on) the person and work of Jesus.

Theravada Buddhism teaches samsara (reincarnation) and karma (the potency of a person's actions to determine who or what they will be in the next life). Christianity claims that each human being has only one lifetime, in which they must come to faith in Christ for salvation.

Both religions have a moral code, which in some points are similar, but also include clear differences. The Buddhist Ten Precepts include prohibitions against lying, stealing, and adultery, just as the biblical Ten Commandments do. However, the Buddhist precept against harming any living being (ahimsa) goes a lot further than the biblical commandment not to kill, which specifically forbids murder, but allows the killing of animals for food and of people in judicial executions or war. Furthermore, each list includes items that would be entirely out of place on the other one. The Ten Commandments exhort us to acknowledge and worship God alone, whereas Theravada Buddhism in theory dispenses with the need for any god, but recognizes the existence of the Vedic (Hindu) gods, and permits lay people to supplicate them for everyday concerns. To illustrate that point, I might mention that Wat Suthat, one of the biggest Theravada Buddhist temples in Bangkok, Thailand, is dedicated to the Hindu god Indra. Each list has totally independent mandates. Buddhist are forbidden to take intoxicating drinks, while the biblical list enjoins observance of the Sabbath. In short, while there is some commonality between the two sets of moral duties on a very basic level, they rather quickly diverge from each other.

As one last point in underlining the contrast, the final destiny of the individual person is drastically different in Theravada Buddhism and Christianity. Both agree that an end to suffering is available, but for Buddhism, which begins by asserting that there is no self, it is the state of Nirvana that is beyond all of our rational categories and distinctions, while according to Christianity an end to suffering is found in an eternal life of bliss in the presence of the personal God.

To repeat, laying out these distinctions is not to make a case for the truth or falsehood of one or the other religion, but just to underscore that you cannot have both. For that matter, and this is really important, you cannot simply take a part of one and another part of the other and staple together your own hybrid religion. For example, I have frequently run across the idea that Christians can (or should) learn the discipline of meditation from Buddhism. Now, Buddhism certainly does not have a corner on meditation; the Bible instructs us to meditate on God, his works and his word, as well. So, meditating is a good idea, and if it took watching a Buddhist meditate to remind us of that fact, that's fine. 

But it is impossible for a Christian to take over Theravada Buddhist meditation because the object and content are not reconcilable with Christian beliefs. In Theravada, meditation as practiced by the bikhus, is geared toward achieving the ultimate insight into one's unreality. It begins with the recognition of one's body and the actions one performs with it and then leads a person to become aware of one's impermanence. It is often performed in the presence of corpses and focuses on death and decay as the inevitable outcome of one's life. One contemplates the ultimate extermination of everything, including one's desire, based on the recognition of anatman (non-self). Thus, one cannot insert Theravada Buddhist meditation into a Christian life because this form of meditation is based on premises that Christians do not believe.

To come at the matter from the other side, Theravada Buddhism cannot incorporate Christian ideas and remain what it is. If a Theravada Buddhist were to try to relate to the Buddha as a savior or someone who made atonement for his sins by his life or death, doing so would only move him further into the world that confuses the brittle construction of dependent origination with a fixed and permanent reality, thereby leading a person further away from enlightenment.

Nor should we equate what the Buddha said about the abolition of desire and the unreality of the self with a Christian notion of selflessness and altruism. Granted, both religions emphasize that we ought not to let ourselves get tied down to the material world and personal gain. So, if we were merely to equate "desire" with greed, both religions would be on the same page insofar as they would concur that greed is a vice. But we saw that in Theravada Buddhism self-less-ness is not a moral virtue but a description of a purported fact, namely, that there is no such thing as a substantial self. And the eradication of desire means to free oneself from all attachments, not just from indulgences and harmful habits, but from everything ranging from the admiration of beauty to the worth of one's body, and extending itself to include as hindrances anything we cherish, including persons whom we love. That does not mean that we are supposed to hate ourselves or others, but that we see all of them as ultimately just as unreal and irrelevant as ourselves, even our parents and our special loved ones. To give your life for the sake of another, a lofty achievement in the Christian world view, may mean in a Theravada context that you still have not seen the unreality behind the curtain.

So, my point is that Theravada Buddhism comes as a package, and that Christianity comes as a package, and one cannot, without calling black "white" or white "black," so to speak, assimilate the two or create a meaningful package by combining items out of the two of them.

Please keep in mind that not everything I've said here about Theravada Buddhism applies to other schools, such as some of the later Mahayana schools, but the basic principle that one cannot meaningfully interchange parts of religions holds true across the board.

Speaking of matters that were adjusted by some Mahayanists, a two-tiered approach to society, whether it's nobility and commoners in the European Middle Ages or bikhus and laity in contemporary Theravada countries, seems to create an unhealthy division wherever it appears. My point in bringing up this matter is not to offend, and I'm sorry if anyone takes my comment in this way, but to raise an issue that may be more easily visible to an outsider and should be able to be discussed rationally. It seems that the existence of an intrinsically privileged class (and the sangha is certainly nothing short of this) tends to be a demoralizing factor for those not a part of it anytime, but particularly when there is a significant poverty-stricken underclass barely living on a subsistence level. In the novel No Way Out Chart Korbjitti tells the story of a (fictional, to be sure) Thai family who believes that their misery is due to their bad karma, which they are unable to improve. A specific example of what they think they could do to better their lot would be to earn merit by making a donation to a bikhu, but they do not have any means to do so. It seems to be generally accepted that this story represents a genuine reality. Although individually many monks will display humility, go through the pro forma process of begging for food, or perhaps even help people in need, the system is set up that some of the most capable people are living at the expense of some of those least able to provide the bare necessities for themselves. As a religion, Theravada Buddhism certainly has the right to set its own rules for the role of monks. Still, an outsider looking at the total picture will see that the system helps to preserve some social inequities that could be remedied. And, please, we all know that a "you, too" argument (tu quoque) does not give a single extra kernel of rice to a starving person. There are inequities based on alterable criteria all over the world, and they are wrong wherever they appear. Can this situation be changed--peacefully--in those countries where Theravada Buddhism is the official religion?





PAGE 1: Introduction

PAGE 2: Derivation and Early Schools
PAGE 3: Contrast to the Mahasanghikas
PAGE 4: Patronage of King Ashoka
PAGE 5: Contrast to the Sarvastivadins
PAGE 6: Contrast to the Pudgalavadins
PAGE 7: Theravada Basics
PAGE 8: Life of Bikhus
PAGE 9: Life of the Laity
PAGE 10: The Laity and the Temple
PAGE 11: Theravada Beliefs
PAGE 12: Theravada Beliefs (cont'd)
PAGE 13: Theravada Beliefs (cont'd)
PAGE 14: A Brief Christian Response