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Tranquility or the Cross: The Dangerous Appeal of Buddhism



This Rock

March 2001

Innumerable men long to escape the waves of meaningless violence, and to some, Buddhism seems to offer a solution. It is associated with friendliness, tolerance, harmony, and tranquility. Those contemplating a statue of the Buddha—and some of them are strikingly beautiful—will be impressed by the inwardness of his look, by the contagious calm that emanates from his face. How appealing this must be to the nonreligious Western man who, devoured by ambition, keeps running toward an elusive goal that cannot bring him peace.

Moreover, the post-Christian world is so thoroughly secularized that many long for a breath of sacredness. Deep down, man knows that there are things and persons that call for awe, and no doubt Buddhism nourishes this legitimate longing. Buddhist ceremonies are bathed in mystery and wrapped in beauty. How many Catholic parishes today can make the same claim?

There are two main types of Buddhism today, Theravada and Mahayana. The former is a smaller, more conservative sect found mostly in Southeast Asia. The latter is far more widespread. The differences between the two are as striking as the differences between Christianity and Gnosticism. Mahayana Buddhism, for instance, is open to the existence of deities, while Theravada Buddhism holds there is nothing beyond this evanescent world. What is discussed here is Theravada Buddhism, which is closer to the heart of historical Buddhism.

There are some striking resemblances between Christianity and Buddhist teaching, but the latter has the advantage of not being burdened by the dogmatic and moral load of Catholicism that modern man finds oppressive. Thinkers such as Taine and Renan, among others, claim that Buddhism—like Christianity—is a "religion of love." At first sight it may appear that way; for a basic Buddhist concept is maitri, which most thinkers have translated (erroneously) as “charity.” Words such as “nonviolence” and “compassion” seem more accurate. But in order to examine whether Buddhism and Christianity are more or less interchangeable we must first examine the genesis of the former.

According to legend, the young prince Sakyamuni, who grew up to become Buddha, was raised in a beautiful palace. His parents' great concern was to shield their son from any experience that was sad or depressing. But one day the young man escaped from the golden cage in which he found himself and within a short time made the acquaintance of old age, sickness, and death. This experience was for him mind shattering and convinced him that human existence is equated with suffering.

Suffering is something terrible, something we all dread. No doubt the question "Why do we suffer?" is one of the most fundamental questions of human existence. Buddha offers a solution. His answer is, "We suffer because we desire. I will teach you the way to tranquility. He who has one hundred types of love has one hundred types of suffering; he who has ninety types of love has ninety types of suffering; he who has no love, has no suffering." Is it surprising that this spiritual teaching attracts millions of people?

It is worth noting that the Buddhistic philosophy that is identified with love is precisely the one claiming that love is the source of our unhappiness. The Buddha was a great psychologist. He knew that an unfulfilled desire causes restlessness, pain, and dissatisfaction. He who nourishes no desire will experience inner calm and serenity and therefore will escape from suffering. Hence, the solution the Buddha proposes is to extinguish in us all desires since inevitably they cause unhappiness.

But the psychological talents of the Buddha did not stop there. Experience also taught him that affective responses such as jealousy, envy, revenge, and hatred cause havoc in the human soul. We all know people who are always dissatisfied, unhappy, or irate. They are at war with themselves. They contemplate what others have and what they themselves do not. Buddhism teaches that such emotions are destructive and must be eliminated, and it offers a teaching (basically a technique) which promises "liberation" from all desires.

Christianity too teaches detachment, but in a radically different way than Buddhism. First of all, from a Christian perspective, human life as such is not identified with suffering. No doubt there is suffering in this "valley of tears," but at the same time, "heaven and earth are full of God's glory." Christianity also appears similar to Buddhism in teaching us that we should eliminate mundane cravings such as desire for money, earthly possessions, power, success, earthly fame, and earthly honors. But whereas Buddhism teaches that desires should be eliminated, Christianity urges us to increase holy desires.

Buddhism explains suffering as the non-fulfillment of desires. Christianity explains it as a consequence of original sin. This earth was a paradise prior to our first parents' disobedience. When creation was completed, God saw that "it was very good." Christian metaphysics, therefore, interprets human existence as a great gift calling for gratitude. But because of original sin, we now find ourselves struggling with sufferings of all sorts and cannot reconquer peace except with God's grace. This grace is granted to us thanks to Christ's sacrifice of himself on the cross. Hence, the cross is now inseparable from Christian life, but beyond the cross shines the glory of the Resurrection. Suffering is not eliminated in the earthly life of the Christian, but it is given a meaning, and the last word belongs to joy.

Buddhism views human life, as it presents itself to man's daily experience, as inseparable from suffering. Hence, man must find a way of escape, and this escape constitutes the very core of Buddhist teaching: Extinguish within yourself cravings, and then the door to illumination will be opened to you—a door leading to the mysterious Nirvana. If this teaching is true, there is no room in it for a key Christian virtue—namely, gratitude. If the very essence of life is suffering, for what and to whom should we be grateful?

The essential differences between Buddhism and Christianity go further and deeper. Buddhism—like Christianity—is keenly conscious of the fragility of human existence, of the contingency of a world that cannot bring fulfillment. The world in which we find ourselves cannot possibly be the one that we are ultimately made for. Secularism preaches the doubtful gospel of "fulfillment" here and now. When the hope of this fulfillment escapes one, many are tempted by suicide.

The more one studies Buddhism the more one perceives that the difference between it and Christianity is most striking precisely where the two seem most similar. Both Buddhism and Christianity see this world as not being the ultimate reality. Paul urges us "to seek the things that are above." Augustine calls us ''pilgrims'' traveling toward eternity. Teresa of Avila tells us that our sojourn on this earth can be compared to a few nights spent in a bad inn.

And yet the beauty of this earth speaks of the glory of God, and the Christian is constantly admonished to be grateful for our "brother sun" and "sister moon," as Francis of Assisi called these creations of God. This is one of the many paradoxes of Christianity. We live in a valley of tears, and yet we should rejoice. As fragile as this earthly reality is (without God's constant sustenance it would fall back into nothingness, and one day it will be totally destroyed, as prophesied by Peter), it is the garden in which God has placed us and in which we shall, with God's help, reach our salvation or, by refusing his help, lose our soul.

Buddhism too has grasped the contingency of this world. But to the Buddhist, the world as we perceive it is essentially a dream, something fleeting, like the foam of the sea, a reflection in water. It is insubstantial and unworthy to be called "real." We therefore see that two apparently similar points of departure lead to two radically different conclusions. No one mixes up things that are radically different, but the danger of confusion is great when two opposing views have a superficial similarity. He who does not probe deeper is likely to draw the conclusion that Buddhism and Christianity are essentially similar.

The respect that both Buddhism and Christianity have for life manifests once again how very different the two conceptions of the world are. For the Buddhist—in this he is close to Hinduism—all life is to be respected. There is no essential difference between the life of an insect and the life of a human baby. One of the numerous legends woven around the life of the Buddha relates that one day he offered his own flesh to satisfy the hunger of a tigress that, pressed by hunger, was about to devour her own cubs. No doubt every life is created by God and calls for respect. But the fact that in Buddhist teaching there is no essential difference between human and nonhuman life betrays its ignorance of the radical difference between personal and non-personal beings.

According to biblical teaching, man alone among material creatures has a soul "made to God's image and likeness." This fact gives him a dignity and a metaphysical grandeur that is denied other material creatures, and that explains why God declared man to be the master of creation and gave him ''dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Gen. 1:26). Man was "knighted" by God and may dare to call him Father. This is something foreign to Buddhism. A logical conclusion of its philosophy is that any vermin is as entitled to "charity" as any human being is. (The constant attacks on man's personhood today lead to similar aberrations. We save baby seals and murder human infants).

To the Buddhist mind, suffering is negative and meaningless. On the other hand, Christianity (and Catholicism in particular), while recognizing the fearful reality of suffering, makes the daring claim that suffering is meaningful. It is Christianity that has unveiled the mysterious relationship existing between love and suffering and has shown "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). This is the sublime core of the Christian message—a message that has touched many heroic souls who have embraced suffering to be close to the one who died a most fearful death to redeem us.

On a purely human level, anyone contemplating the serenity emanating from a statue of Buddha and comparing it to a painting of Christ in agony on the cross will opt for Buddhism. Would it not be foolish to choose torture and agony when the Buddha is guaranteeing calm and tranquility? But Paul was right: What is foolishness to man's fallen nature is gloriously transfigured by those who have penetrated the mystery of divine love.

Metaphysical questions such as "Is there a God?" and "Do we have an immortal soul?" are, to the Buddhist mind, inane and can lead only to restlessness. Buddhism is pragmatic to its core and has no interest in metaphysical questions. Its thought is essentially agnostic. One cannot insist enough on the single-mindedness of the Buddhistic approach. All that matters is to liberate oneself from suffering. Everything contributing to this goal is welcome; everything related to it is rejected as irrelevant.

Another striking characteristic of Buddhism is its lack of interest in history. Much of the Buddhistic teaching is a tissue of legends, some of them rather fantastic, which strike the imagination but have no foundation in history. Since Buddhism views the world as essentially unreal, history loses meaning. In contrast, Christianity is a religion founded on historical fact. (See, for instance, Luke 2:1-2: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.")

True as it is that both Buddhism and Christianity aim at some sort of liberation, for the Buddhist, this liberation can be accomplished by dint of personal efforts and the application of a technique of detachment. The Christian too longs for liberation, but this liberation is not from a cosmic illusion; it is liberation from the shackles of sin. This liberation can be accomplished only by God's grace, and man is called upon to collaborate with it by speaking his "yes" to the aid that God offers him. For without Christ, "he can do nothing." In one case, we have self-redemption. In the other, redemption is a gift that man can accept or reject. God alone can save us.

To the Buddhist, what we call man is only an aggregate. There is no personhood, no recognition of the dignity and uniqueness of the individual person made to God's image and likeness. One could accuse eighteenth-century skeptic philosopher David Hume of plagiarizing Buddhism when he called man "a bundle of sensations."

Cardinal Henri de Lubac has shown convincingly that for this reason Buddhistic love and Christian love are antipodes. For the Christian, charity is a partaking in Christ's love for another person. Unaided, man cannot love his neighbor. But with the help of grace man can burn for the welfare of all his brothers and truly partake in Christ's infinite love for them.

The phrase "Love your neighbor as yourself," which is found in both Buddhistic and Christian teaching, is, within each context, radically different. The question rests upon an understanding of the word self: How is one to love others as one loves oneself when we have no self? In fact, neither authentic self-love nor love of neighbor are objectively possible without God's help. The pragmatic character of maitri as a sort of purgation to liberate oneself becomes evident. It is love depersonalized. It aims at liberation, and to "love" others is a means leading to this freedom.

In view of this brief glance at Buddhistic thought, a few conclusions can be drawn. First, much as the accomplishments of Buddhism are to be valued, one can legitimately raise the question whether it should be called a religion in the full sense of this term. To avoid confusions and misunderstandings, would it not be more appropriate to call Buddhism a noble spirituality, discovered by a remarkable person anxious to liberate humanity from its crushing burden of sorrows?

If we insist upon calling it a religion, we must realize that we are using the term in a very loose sense and that there are some radical differences between Buddhism and the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. A spirituality that eliminates the question of God's existence is structurally different from ours, where the existence of a transcendent being is its very foundation. Buddhism teaches the way to self redemption. Christianity gives us a Redeemer.

I would like to end this brief analysis by pointing to some facts that should create great dismay among those who are concerned about the future of religion in the Western world. What we have examined should open our eyes to a dangerous reality too easily overlooked, namely, the incognito infiltration of Buddhism into contemporary thought. But it is Buddhism stripped of sacrality, stripped of beauty, stripped of mystery, stripped of any sense of tradition. It seems legitimate to fear that the Buddhistic ideology is forming more and more the mentality of our secularized society.

Some examples are called for. I shall limit myself to the most obvious ones. We have seen that Buddhism in fact denies the existence of the person. The Western world has been infected by this dangerous error to such an extent that many people deny the essential difference of nature between man and animals. (Peter Singer, now a professor at Princeton, advocates the "rights" of animals).

We save endangered species and simultaneously kill millions of babies. It is not by accident that our Holy Father keeps insisting on the dignity of the human person; he wisely realizes that a war is being waged against the biblical teaching of man's origin and destiny.

But the incognito influence of oriental thought goes farther and deeper. The historical value of the Old and New Testaments is more and more put into question, and Rudolph Bultmann's persistent pursuit of "demythologizing" the sacred books is an attempt to reduce the historical teaching of the Bible to a tissue of attractive legends. The difference between sacred books and secular ones is thereby erased. The Immaculate Conception of Mary, her virginity, the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ are taught in some seminaries to be mere "interpretations" given by believers that, in fact, have no historical foundation. How dangerous and how tendentious is the claim that the content of revelation can be reduced to “legends,” much as the life of Buddha is to a large extent legendary. These are but a few hints that call for an in-depth analysis of this question that I leave for those better equipped and more competent than I am.

It is appropriate to end by quoting Augustine who formulated admirably the abysmal difference between those who identify love with compassion and those who see that love has its source in God himself. He writes, “By eliminating misery, we shall do away with the works of mercy. But will the fire of love thereby be extinguished?”

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