A Better Look at Buddhism

04 Apr

Astasahasrika_Prajnaparamita_Dharmacakra_DiscourseThere’s nothing quite like a primary source, even in translation. I studied Buddhism in college, but reading the Dhammapada–the Buddha’s sayings–was a different experience.

For one thing, although the sayings (even with Thomas Cleary’s commentary) form a very short book, they are dense. In form they reminded me of some of Jesus’ sayings. As modern Westerners, we are used to essentially seeing stories as fluff. We are encouraged to add them to speeches or nonfiction writing to illustrate our point, but putting one in for its own sake is considered a sign of poor craftsmanship.

In the view of many non-Western cultures, however, a story may well be the point. Buddhists emphasize meditation on “parables,” not simply expounding them. Being able to explain one of the Buddha’s sayings is beside the point; a deeper understanding is what matters. Early Christians would have viewed Christ’s parables in a similar fashion. Yes, the parables must be understood on an intellectual level, but they are not simply illustrations for a larger point. The parables should change how we see the world.

Perhaps their story- and image-focused teachings are part of the reason that modern Westerners often believe they see more similarities between Buddhism and Christianity than actually exist. Since neither Buddha nor Christ expressed himself in proper essay format, with a nice introduction, body, and conclusion, it is easier to muddle their rhetorical styles. Also, the Buddha’s moral teachings have a great deal in common with those of other great moral teachers, which, of course, include Christ. (Both the Buddha and Christ opposed holding grudges, for instance.)

Yet, despite the surface similarities, the two religions are polar opposites in some respects. Thomas Cleary’s commentary emphasized that Buddhism is not anti-nature–although less mature Buddhists are recommended to imagine the world as an illusion, this is only to achieve another step in the process of enlightenment. Fair enough. But the Buddha’s view of nature was vastly different than that held by Christians. To the Buddha, everything is one, and the human body is almost a burden, something that must regularly feed and excrete. In Christianity, God Himself took on a body (by choice!), and He kept it. The resurrection of the body is the great hope of all Christians. I suspect that, were such a thing offered to the Buddha, he would have rejected it as an obstacle to reaching enlightenment.

Christianity is a physical faith in a way that Buddhism is not. To become a Buddhist, you must follow Buddha’s teachings–seek enlightenment, and choose to behave in an appropriate way. Both are primarily mental acts. Jesus Christ, however, left the Church with two very physical sacraments–baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are not obstacles to an authentic inward faith–quite the contrary.

The Dhammapada makes odd Lent reading. Yet it directs my attention back to a central emphasis of this time. Jesus Christ was a man. He became tired, hungry, thirsty. When he traveled, his feet got covered in dust. He wept. He bled. He died.

Buddhism emphasizes overcoming suffering. Buddhists are to reach an enlightened state where they do not suffer, although they should sympathize with the sufferings of others. But Christ became a man in order to suffer for our sake.

Thank God for that.

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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Philosophy


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