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Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Thoughts on Christian Buddhism

Books blending Buddhism and Christianity have become popular, with such bestsellers as Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers and Living Buddha, Living Christ by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh leading the pack.  The response to such works by Christians who actually care about the details of their faith is often less than enthusiastic, but the same ought to be the case with Buddhists who want to get beyond superficial, feel-good philosophizing.  In fact, the entire effort is misguided, starting, typically, with the assumption that the Buddha was a mystic, Jesus was, too, and don’t all mystics teach the same thing (the “Perennial Philosophy”)?

In fact, it’s not hard to see what the Buddha’s opinion of an ideology like Christianity would have been.  From the standpoint of Dhamma, Jesus’ teaching (not to mention the entire Western monotheistic tradition) is an example of sassataditthi (“eternalist view”), positing as it does a permanent, immortal soul, person, entity, being, or state.  As such it would be classed as micchaditthi (“wrong view”).  For Thich Nhat Hanh et al not to notice this glaring fact indicates they either misunderstand Christianity, the Dhamma, or both.  (I suspect it is the latter.)  For example, the Buddha has declared the following:

Bhikkhus, only here [i.e. within the Buddha’s dispensation] is there a samana [in this context referring to a sotapanna], only here is a second samana [i.e. sakadagami], only here a third samana [i.e. anagami], only here a fourth samana [i.e. arahat].  The doctrines of others are devoid of samanas. (Culasihanada Sutta, M.11:2, trans. by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications 1995, p. 159.)

(This passage references the various stages of sainthood in the Buddha’s Teaching.)

The reason for this is further stated in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (D.16:5:27), where the Buddha declares that the presence of the Eightfold Path is the necessary condition for any teaching to lead someone to liberation.  Christianity, especially the Biblically based sort, lacks anything corresponding to the Eightfold Path and as such is incapable of guiding anyone to liberation (i.e. nibbana).  It would thus be considered kanha dhamma, a “dark teaching.”

In fact, not only are Christianity and the Dhamma incompatible, the Buddha’s Teaching represents a full frontal assault upon all belief systems of any kind—including any attempt to make the Buddha Dhamma into some kind of dogmatic faith.  In this way the Dhamma can seen as a sort of radical deconstructionism, and it is for just this reason it cannot be called a religious faith in the same way the Western monotheistic religions can.  Consider the following passage:

 “Monks, I will teach you the Dhamma as similar to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Listen and pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, lord,” the monks responded to the Blessed One.

The Blessed One said: “Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, ‘Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands and feet?’ Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, and leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands and feet.  Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying on my back, go wherever I like?’ What do you think, monks: Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?”

“No, lord.”

“And what should the man do with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma as similar to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.” (Alagaddupama Sutta, M:22:13-14, trans. by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications 1995, pp. 228-9.)

Plainly, the Buddha did not set out to start some new ideology or even to update an old one and then to spread it; his teaching is antithetical to all ideologies.  For what it requires is a complete letting go of all attachments of any sort, most especially the mental constructs that comprise the notion of self, among which are the various ideologies one inevitably adopts in the course of a life.  It should be obvious then why “converting” to Buddhism is in a way absurd, in fact self-contradicting.  One either follows Dhamma or does not; calling oneself a “Buddhist” or a “Christian-Buddhist” (as schizophrenic a designation as ever there was) is beside the point.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Christian Buddhism

  1. I have to smile when I read this. You sound exactly like all the dozens, maybe scores, of “tribal Christians” I’ve talked with over the last two decades.

    The Eightfold Path is inside historical Christianity. So are the other three Noble Truths. I have met only a few Christians who would even care, let alone bother to look for it. But, when that connection is made, the two religions can merge. Without that connection, of course you right that the two religions don’t fit.

    • I’m not familiar with the term “tribal Christian.” In general, I eschew tribalism, nationalism, militarism and the like. As regards the Eightfold Path existing within “historical Christianity”…I’m not sure which Christianity you’re referring to. “Historical” could mean anything or everything. I am well read in the Bible, and also have read a lot on Western mysticism. Some of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mystics certainly discuss states of consciousness and practices that share common ground with what you find in the Pali Suttas. These sorts of things are common to all the world’s contemplative traditions; they can even be found in shamanistic practices. However, the Bible is not a mystical document, nor does it describe a contemplative path. Moreover, if the Buddha’s teaching–as you appear to be asserting–were found in it’s entirety within Christianity (and by this I specifically mean within those documents that comprise the religion’s core, i.e. the New Testament), then there ought to be some correspondence between the worldviews of Christians and Buddhists, but there isn’t. The threefold training outlined in the Suttas (sila, samadhi, pannya) leads to reproducible results in terms of psychological effects, experiences, and conclusions about the nature of self-hood and reality. Christianity, on the other hand, is predicated upon the unverifiable notion of a unique, unreproducible historical event–God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ–not to mention the belief in permanent states (heaven, hell) and entities (God, the Devil, the soul, etc), as well as the assumed efficacy of faith as a means of salvation–the notion that those with “right faith” will “live happily ever after.” If you’ve actually read the Suttas then you cannot possibly–unless you’re under the influence of some strong hallucinogen–come away with the notion that the Buddha taught anything similar. I have noticed that many Christians who dabble in Buddhism, and many Buddhists who are attached to Christianity (usually because of their upbringing), have a very hard time letting go of the notion that the two must somehow be the same, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. This appears to be the case with you. I would recommend another of my posts, “The Morals of God and the Buddha,” as a further counter to your belief that Christianity somehow encompasses, or is at least compatible with, the Buddha’s teaching.

  2. By “tribal” I mean the attitude that “my church/sangha/tribe/nation/club is right, and all the rest are wrong.” It’s the bad side of patriotism. Southern Baptists are known for it, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans live by it, and you’re doing it for you brand of Buddhism.

    I am still learning Buddhism, yes, but it’s as clear as the nose on my face that you do not understand Christianity. What you’re presenting is an immature picture of it, a tribal-Christian position actually. I completely understand where and why you got it so I do not blame you for 2 seconds for having that perspective, but you need to know that it’s not the mature thing. It’s not the real thing.

    The Bible is a mystical document, and it does describe a contemplative path. There have been plenty of mystic Christians through the centuries demonstrating that their training leads to reproducible results. Most people don’t go there, but their failure does not negate what it is.

    I have read and marked up a great deal of the Long, Middle, and Connected Discourses, as well as the Dhammapada and the Platform, Heart, and Diamond Sutras. In every single one of those books I found the Bible. It’s there if you’re not tribal. The Zen monk Thict Nhat Hahn openly proclaims Christianity is true.

    • Nowhere did I say that “my sangha is right and all the rest are wrong.” What I pointed out, by quoting directly from the texts, was that the Buddha said the presence of the eightfold path within a teaching was necessary to attain nibbana. In other words, if you don’t live and meditate in a certain way, you won’t get there. Clearly, in his time no one else was selling the equal of his program, and so the assertion was correct. This is not to say, however, that someone else, without being influenced by Buddhism, might not attain nibbana. It could happen, if they are practicing what for all intents and purposes is the eightfold path. I have yet to see any clear indication though that some other major tradition has achieved this, though I do find scattered individuals who appear likely candidates. Christianity—at least as the overwhelming majority of people have understood it—does not teach the eightfold path. Where are the epistles from Paul discussing mindfulness (or anything approximating it), or the development of states of concentration? Where are Jesus’ sermons on no-self or dependent arising or the insight knowledges? Obviously, I wouldn’t expect Jesus or Paul to use the same terminology as you find in the Suttas, but if they had discovered independently what the Buddha discovered (which is what you’re inferring), then some intellectually equivalent terminology ought to be found in the texts of the Old or New Testaments. It isn’t.

      A little explanation concerning the genesis of my post may well be in order. Go to Daryl E. Witmer’s “Ten Questions I’d Ask If I Could Interview Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) Today” (http://www.christiananswers.net/q-aiia/letter-buddhisminterview.html). I actually responded to Mr. Witmer and the post was what I put down for question #5. So what I was trying to point out was that if you go by the texts themselves, it is not possible to sustain the “all religions are one” thesis. I also say that Thich Naht Hahn, while a very good man, is mistaken concerning the nature of Christianity. Christianity is a belief system. It is an orthodoxy, where adherence to certain tenets—that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament, that he died as a sacrificial offering for our sins, that he rose from the dead etc—is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian. All of these assertions are non-repeatable, unverifiable events. They are matters of faith which you either accept or don’t. In trying to characterize the Bible as a contemplative document you are conflating the meditative exploits of certain men and women who lived in the Judaeo-Christian tradition with what constitutes the basic tenets of the tradition.

      Blind belief in fantastic, unverifiable assertions about reality is not what you find in the Buddha’s teaching. There it is test, test, test. Empiricism rules the day. Practice this, and you will find that. The Dhamma is an applied psychology, and the parable of the raft that I quote is clear indication that faith in or adherence to a body of beliefs is not of primary importance. In fact, they are hindrances.

      To be honest, I am actually sympathetic to your program—that is, to the idea of emphasizing the mystical as opposed to the orthodox side of Christianity. I have read St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart and the works of others. These were great men and women. How could I not be sympathetic to what they teach? I could say the same as regards the Sufis (Islam) and the Kabbalists (Judaism). The problem is, in each case, the primary source documents these groups have to work from (the New Testament, the Koran and the Old Testament, respectively) are believed by their co-religionists to be revealed texts—direct from the Creator Himself—and they are quite antithetical to meditative worldviews. The constant persecution of heterodoxies by the establishments in these religions (particularly in the cases of Christianity and Islam) is symptomatic of this fact. I’m sorry that this is so, but it is intellectual dishonesty or self-deception to maintain otherwise.

      Anyway, at this point I think it would be better for me to encourage you in your brand of Christianity, which strikes me as far superior to most of what goes by that name, than to try to point out how you’ve misconstrued the Buddha’s teaching. The one will lead to further growth, the other to increasing rancor. I wish you success in your endeavors.

  3. Thank you. Good luck to you too.

  4. Dan O. on said:

    I had a huge long discussion about this 2 year old post, and then I went back and re-read some other replies. All I will add is one word (with explanation), Gnosticism. Gnosticism was an early Christian sect that focused on Gnosis or knowledge over ‘heavenly salvation.’ It was a very mystic, meditative, Buddhist-esque, denomination. Even Thich Nhat Hanh refers to Gnosticism in Living Buddha, Living Christ. That is the type of Christianity he is talking about in that text. Sadly, it was not included in the Bible for political reasons (and was only rediscovered in recent history). Free-thinking, self-aware sheep are bad. Really, what I have studied of Gnosticism, at least some texts I have read, is Buddhism. And, in those text, Christ does speak of terms in the way that a Buddha would. I label myself as Christian/Buddhist because it is easier for others to understand, at least easier than Gnostic/Buddhist. I think the whole discussion is a problem with labels never truly representing the Truths behind them. 🙂 Sorry for being 2 years late. Thank you for presenting your feelings and helping me understand my own. In the end, we all just want to understand and end suffering, no? So let’s walk the road together; sometimes we may step over different stones, or around different trees. But, if our hearts, minds, and bodies are earnest, I have faith we can get there, together.

    • criticalbuddhist on said:

      Wow! Is this post now two years old? Didn’t realize it. To a great extent I agree with you (though I don’t even fully remember the contents of the original post, so I’m kinda going on faith here!). I think contemplative paths, properly understood and followed to their ends, lead to very similar–if not identical–conclusions. This point was especially driven home to me on an episode of “Buddhist Geeks”. The interviewee was a “contemplative Christian” teacher. Listening to him it was hard to tell how what he was describing was different from Tibetan mahamudra, which is in fact essentially a form of cittanupassana as described in the Pali Canon’s Satipatthana Sutta (arguably the single most important of the Buddha’s discourses in the original scriptures). We are all human, after all, and our minds/hearts can only manifest in so many ways, once you take into account the various cultural backgrounds and languages. The issue that inspired the original post was the blatant disregard for fact and intelligent understanding that I saw in Mr. MacPherson’s posts. And while I’m sure he himself is a swell guy, I found his statements galling enough to spur me into action.

      Regarding your own comments: there are certainly definite parallels–as well as some notable distinctions–between Gnosticism and Buddhism. Of course, it depends on which Buddhism you’re talking about. With some sects the parallels are more marked than with others. The problem in general I have with Christianity is that we really know so little about Jesus. This is a terrible shame! However long the man’s ministry went on before his untimely demise, he certainly said more than was recorded–much more! In fact, so little has been recorded (you can read the actual words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels in less than an hour if you take out the synoptic redundancies) that I have to wonder just how accurate a picture we have. With the Buddha in the Pali Canon I’d say we’ve got a pretty full portrait. Besides, you can replicate the experiment, so to speak, and verify it. With Jesus….no can do. (Resurrections don’t come easy, whether you believe in it literally or not.) So….we’re left with speculation.

      As far as the contemplative path goes though–it is forever and always, not a matter of time and place–and yes I do think we can get there together. The more the merrier!

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