Apologist Joel Furches explores the central beliefs of this popular Eastern religion, and compares it to Hinduism and Christianity
One of the perennial and most agonising questions any religion has to struggle with is why is there so much suffering in the world, and how do we, as humans, cope with it?
While the existence and nature of suffering is not a subject from which the Christian Bible shies away, it is nevertheless a constant challenge directed at Christians who claim to have a perfect and loving God.
500 years before Christianity was established by the followers of Jesus, another religion arose, the central question of which was the existence of suffering. That religion is still alive and thriving in the modern world.
The sources related to the origins of Buddhism are ancient and uncertain, and Buddhists are not nearly as interested in inspecting and guarding the authenticity of these sources as Christians are with their Bible. This is at least partially because the historical events recorded in the Bible are important for proving or disproving the truth of Christianity, whereas Buddhism might be equally true whether its sources were the teachings of a historical figure or bits of wisdom gradually accumulated over time.
Both Buddhism and Christianity are missionary religions, Buddhism having spread from its origin spot in India to becoming the majority religion in many Asian nations over the years. However, Buddhism has somewhat less urgency in its missionary efforts. Whereas Christians teach that individuals only have a single life to get right with God, Buddhists believe in an endless cycle from which souls dissolve and emerge again. If a person dies without having achieved enlightenment, there is always hope for the future.
The origins of Buddhism
The story of Buddhism begins with an Indian man named Siddhartha Gautama in the 5th Century BCE. If the sources and legends are correct, Gautama was born in Nepal, just across the border from India. In this time and place in history, Hinduism was the majority religion, and the religion Siddhartha Gautama would have belonged to culturally.
Gautama was a prince, born into a life of affluence and prosperity. However, he was shocked and disgusted at the poverty, suffering and death that took place in the world outside his palace walls. Gautama came to the grim conclusion that the essential nature of life was suffering.
Like the proverbial prince in the story of the Prince and the Pauper, Gautama sought a life of freedom beyond the palace walls, travelling across the land, begging for a living and meditating in the Hindu fashion. The freedom of the rambler did nothing to ease his discontent with life. Like the Prince and the Pauper, Gautama realised that neither extreme luxury on the one hand nor asceticism on the other eased the discontent that came with life. With this realisation, Gautama opted to try a path of balance between the two which he called ‘The Middle Way’.
As legend has it, Gautama eventually achieved enlightenment during a period of intense meditation beneath the bows of a tree, now called ‘the tree of awakening’, and the site of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bihar. Like the city of Mecca to the Muslims, this is the most sacred site of Buddhism, and a place of frequent pilgrimage for Buddhists the world over.
The noble truths
Judaism has its ten commandments, Islam has its five pillars and Buddhism has its four noble truths. The truths are not laws one must follow in order to be a good Buddhist, but rather a set of principles which, taken together, explain the fundamental philosophy of Buddhism.
The truths are based on the journey of Buddhism’s founder as detailed above, and begin with his realisation that life is suffering. Just as Gautama abandoned his wealth to deal with this revelation, the second noble truth is that suffering is a result of desire. If I do not desire food, I shall not hunger. If I do not desire comfort, I feel no pain. If I do not desire health, the presence of sickness does not injure my peace.
And this leads to the third noble truth: that it is possible to end one’s suffering and in doing so, achieve enlightenment.
But how does one end one’s own suffering? This is the fourth and final noble truth: the path of the Middle Way. One may end desire, but one must sustain life while life may be sustained, so attending to the basic needs of one’s body is permitted, but is something like balancing a financial budget, do not “spend more than you make” or desire anything beyond what the basics of living can fulfil.
Buddhism and Hinduism
Buddhism gestated and was born within a Hindu culture, and shares some features with Hinduism. Among these similarities is the concept of death and rebirth. Rebirth within Buddhism, however, is a bit different than Hinduism.
Whereas Hinduism holds that the individual soul cycles eternally through death and rebirth, Buddhism tends to hold that all souls are made of the same substance, and upon death, the individual soul falls like a drop of water into the vast sea from which souls are formed. When a new person is born into the world, that person’s soul is drawn as with an eyedropper from the sea of soul material to form a new person.
Hinduism teaches that, by the accumulation of good karma, a person can escalate through the various rebirths until that person achieves the end goal: divinity and immortality. Buddhism has a different end goal in mind: nirvana.
It is easy from a Western standpoint to think of nirvana as a kind of heavenly state. No more constant rebirths, but rather, eternal bliss. The no more rebirths is accurate enough, but the bliss of which it speaks is an end to desire, and an end to a sense of self. In a sense, it is the total extinction of the individual, as that individual has no body, no drives and no identity.
This somewhat nihilistic approach to belief isn’t exclusive to the state of nirvana. If one listens to the various sutras of Buddhism – the written transcription of Buddhist sermons – one finds a theme that says that all is nothing. It is this realisation of nothingness, this loss of drive and personal identity, which signifies total enlightenment.
Buddhism is sometimes conceived of as an ‘atheist religion’. By this, it means that there is no God or gods, as one would expect in a system that says “everything is nothing”. And, indeed, nirvana is not unlike an atheist belief that when one dies, one is entirely extinguished. Buddhism just requires a little work to get there.
However, this isn’t true across all sects and all schools of Buddhist teaching. Whereas the founder of Buddhism rejected the many Hindu gods, all of whom were individuals who had achieved their divine state through accumulation of good karma, this idea that people who achieved total enlightenment under Buddhism became divine in some sense crept back into various schools of Buddhism.
These beings of total enlightenment, called bodhisattvas, are said to return as spirits to help other mortals along the path, and are given some form of worship in the countries that hold these beliefs, mainly China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. It is not unusual for people in this school of Buddhism to build shrines and pray to these bodhisattvas, perhaps similar to the saints in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Gautama is referred to as ‘the Buddha’, but there are, in some schools of thought, many Buddhas, and any person can become a Buddha with sufficient enlightenment.
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Christianity and Buddhism
What Buddhism fails to provide is a sense of origin and meaning. In fact, Buddhism pushes a soft nihilism. In the Diamond Sutra, for instance, the speaker repeatedly drives home the point that all is nothing and that meaning is meaningless. A Buddhist would suggest that the need for a sense of meaning and purpose is a desire to be discarded, not a drive to be fulfilled.
Questions of origin are equally unimportant to Buddhism, which would suggest that everything that has always been, and that the Universe is a unified and undifferentiated being. The suffering of the individual is, in part, due to the false notion of individualism. Once that person realises that identity is an illusion and that all is one, the person has achieved enlightenment.
Christianity has a very different view of meaning, purpose, desire and origins. It teaches a finite Universe with a distinct beginning at some point in the past. It teaches that individuals really do have personhood and that their creator, God, is equally a person.
As to desires, Christianity teaches that desires are good so long as they are fulfilled in the way designed by God. Desire for food is good when such desire is met in health and moderation, desire for comfort is good because in the perfect world of the future all suffering will cease, desire for sex is fulfilled appropriately within the bonds of marriage, and desire for meaning and purpose is fulfilled in a relationship with God.
Buddhism observes that desires result in disappointments and, consequently, suffering. Whereas Christians are instructed to delay satisfaction by placing priority on the things of God, those things being love of God and love of neighbour.
Buddhism seems to have a neat solution to the problem of suffering by placing the onus for relief on the individual. There may be some middle way, so to speak, to reconcile Buddhist doctrine with Christian doctrine. Perhaps desire is a source of suffering so long as those desires are misplaced. In the words of Jesus: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”
In the passage where Jesus gives this piece of wisdom, he also encourages his listeners to put worries away, because the act of worry solves no problems, to look to God to supply and care for needs, and to “cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you”.
The teachings of Jesus openly admit that pain and suffering are part of life, but teach that if one takes the simple step of repenting of sin and believing in Christ, one’s desires will be corrected to the will of God, and that in the world to come, those desires will be fulfilled in full.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.