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?”
“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.