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Theological Publications





If You Dislike Christianity,
You'll Hate Buddhism!

As a teacher of comparative Religion courses over many years, I have come to notice some surprising and even paradoxical things. It is no surprise to me when certain students keep their minds as closed as a clenched fist because their fundamentalist upbringing demands it. I know to expect it, especially since I felt that way myself when I was their age. I try not to let it rest that way, though. I have no trouble respecting various points of view, because I have no problem respecting individuals as persons, and their most intimate beliefs are a part of them. I think Rousseau had the same thing in mind when he observed that one cannot live in harmony with one's neighbor so long as one really believes one's neighbor is damned to Hell. But accepting their belief insofar as they cherish it is another thing than accepting it as on a par with other options when the belief has nothing going for it, no leg to stand on. For instance a servant of truth simply cannot dignify Creationism by treating it as a scientific alternative deserving equal time in the class room. Anyone who knows the first thing about scientific method and the nature of theorizing knows Creationism does not belong in the game. You don't enter a horse in a dog race. Thus as a teacher, your responsibility is to use Creationism as a foil to demonstrate what the scientific approach really is, and it is not a set of particular conclusions but rather a method of arriving at (tentatively held) conclusions.

In the same way, if education is your game, you cannot allow it to appear that you respect and thus appear to legitimate narrow-mindedness. Like a good Zen Master, your business is to ask disturbing Socratic questions, to coax the truth out from within the student. For instance, I like to suggest that the person who says "I've made up my mind; don't confuse me with the facts," is making me think the opposite of what they want me to think. Do they have great faith? Instead, I can't help but think that deep down, they already know the jig is up! You don't lock up the barn that tight unless you know the horse wants out! They must know their faith would never survive a close look at certain facts. Trying to preserve the illusion, they are only making it more obvious that they know it is an illusion after all. I merely point this out.

As I say, I am not too surprised to find this attitude prevalent among fundamentalist Christian students. But it has surprised me on occasion to discover the same sort of mind set present in other quarters. For instance, there are plenty of fundamentalist nonbelievers: people who have left fundamentalism behind in terms of doctrine, but who have only redoubled it as an attitude. Just scan the letters pages of certain Rationalist and Free Thought periodicals. Once I read a letter from an ex-fundamentalist boasting of his various efforts at propagating the lack of faith. This poor fellow was making a spectacle of himself by passing out atheistic handbills on the street corner, printing up atheist bumper stickers, etc. In short, he had given up religion only to preserve what most of us would consider its most odious and onerous aspects! For such a person, the tag "ex-fundamentalist" denotes merely another sub-type of fundamentalism, like "neo-fundamentalist" or "hyper-fundamentalist." But, again, I can empathize with this one, pathetically ironic as it is, because I have succumbed to this one, too.

But we seem never to learn. I can remember some fifteen years ago when my wife Carol and I dropped by to visit Maryanne, a classmate of my wife, and her husband. Carol had told me she was a convert to Buddhism--which today may mean anything, often denoting more of a New Ager than any traditional sort of Buddhist. After all, if you really believe Cyril Henry Hoskins, AKA Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, is a Buddhist, you may think you are, too, even if you are as far from the Dharma as he was. As we opened a polite conversation, it rapidly developed that Maryanne took a rather non-Buddhistic stance toward Christianity. That is to say, her third eye was somewhat jaundiced when it came to Christianity. She proceeded to fulminate bitterly against its psychological and theological inadequacies. You can imagine the usual line about the destructive self-hatred and guilt over the physical body that Christianity fosters. Then she went on to denigrate the bloody superstition of the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.

Let's get one thing straight. I agreed with these critiques. At the time I still maintained some sort of vague Christian identity myself, albeit of a rather left-wing Tillichian brand. My approach then was to try to "purify" Christian existence from these various phobias and superstitions, get to the philosophical/psychological meat of the thing. I have since given up the enterprise. But I felt the gauntlet had been thrown down and I made ready to reply. I figured the best defense was a good offense. Thus I sought not to defend Christianity (I couldn't have defended those aspects in good faith anyway). But neither did I consider attacking Buddhism, which then as now I revere as a true religion. My chosen strategy was to show how she was reading Buddhism even more selectively than she was reading Christianity.

Surely, I ventured, she could not be unaware of the fact that the very doctrinal features she despised in their Christian avatars were not only present in but absolutely central to historic mainstream Buddhism! I'm not sure what she took Buddhism to mean, but it's a safe bet all the Buddhist faithful in China, Mongolia, Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, Korea, and Japan (to say nothing of that ancient stronghold of Oriental mysticism, Colorado) would not agree with her. For Mahayana Buddhism is solidly based on the Bodhisattva doctrine. Southern Asian Buddhism, Theravada (or Hinayana, as the Mahayana call it), is a spare and logically simpler scheme of attaining Nirvana through self-effort aimed at extinguishing the apparent self, or ego.

But the Lords of the Mahayana rejected such a goal as selfish in aim and in means. Instead, they believed, all Buddhists ought to emulate Gautama Buddha himself who, after all, did not yield to the temptation of Mara that he should leave this poor world behind and pass forever into his own Nirvana at once. For the sake of poor mortals, Samsara addicts, the Lord Buddha deferred his own rightful Nirvana. And so should we! And given the fact that all beings share the Buddha nature and are thus capable of eventual Buddhahood, it is finally nonsensical to suggest that I can be saved without you and everyone else being saved. It's all or nothing. This means, as the Buddha is made to reveal to his disciples in the Saddharma Pundarika (The Lotus of the True Law), that even the 24 previous Buddhas (including Dipankara, the one under whose tutelage Gautama Buddha first heard the Dharma preached many ages before) are still active behind the scenes in the Sambogkhya, the penultimate realm of existence where the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas dwell like celestial gods, answering prayers and otherwise aiding poor mortals who need a hand up.

One ought to take the vow to embark on the path to Buddhahood, and once one does so, one counts as a Bodhisattva (a Buddha-to-be). This is a long and hard row to hoe, but you'd be spending the time in pointless reincarnations anyway, so why not? Through countless lifetimes of toil and self-sacrifice for the good of others, the Bodhisattva earns good karma far in excess of that necessary to win his wings (as Clarence does in It's a Wonderful Life). He has to be in the business of doing good works to become worthy of Bodhisattvahood.

Now, who's the Bodhisattva to do these good works for? This works out rather well for the vast majority of Buddhist laity who have not the stamina to undertake the Greater Career. They are doing their bit by financially supporting the earthly Bodhisattvas (as they did the Theravadin monks down south) and by praying to the heavenly ones, as their ancestors used to pray to the Vedic gods. Eventually the store of supererogatory merit amassed by the Bodhisattvas was believed so great that they could grant not only worldly boons but actual salvation itself! We think that the Buddha taught that there was no grace upon which to draw to gain Nirvana, since the whole idea was to change your own frame of mind, nullify the ego, which in the nature of the case only you can do. But by hook and by crook, Mahayana Buddhism eventually evolved a salvation scheme by which certain virtuosos, like the Buddha himself, might in fact offer such saving grace to those calling upon them in faith. By such an act of receptive faith the believer is allowed to draw upon the store of good Karma gained by the Bodhisattvas by their good works. It will be transferred to the believers' accounts as if it had been their own achievement. Does this sound familiar? It will sound even more so. For some Bodhisattvas, in order to gain still more abundant good Karma, will voluntarily submit to the tortures of the numerous spectacular Hells of Buddhist eschatology. Avalokiteshvara and his brethren are in this fashion undergoing expiatory suffering in your place and for your benefit.

In Pure Land Buddhism, fantastically popular in Japan where it spread from China and India, we witness the ultimate spinning out of the logic of this redemptive theology. A long succession of Pure Land patriarchs, basing their teachings on the Longer and Shorter Sukhavati Sutras (= Pure Land Scriptures), sought to refine the meaning of salvation by grace through faith alone. Their Sutras have Gautama taking the role of John the Baptist, singing the greater glories of Amitabha Buddha, an ancient king who, hearing the preaching of a contemporary Buddha, renounced the throne and took up the discipline of the Bodhisattva. His strategy was to put all of his accumulated Karmic green Stamps toward the creation of a "Pure Land," a world in which one need only be reborn to achieve the stage of non-returning, the seventh stage of the Bodhisattva path (something that would otherwise take unthinkable eons of good works, as it did in the case of Amitabha himself). At the end of one lifetime in the Sukhavati, one would infallibly attain Buddhahood.

And how was to one guarantee one's reservations? Aye, there's the rub. The text said one need only call on Amitabha's name three times, and that would do it. But the various patriarchs sought to determine, with all the introspective microscrutiny of a medieval penance manual, precisely what mental condition constituted saving faith. What meditations and attitudes were required? As always happens with introspective pietism (read Watchman Nee, Andrew Murray, etc.) what looked easy turns out to be arduous and confusing--or is made to be so. Each subsequent patriarch narrowed the range of activity required, recognizing that the more a successful faith hinges upon one fulfilling certain conditions, the more salvation after all depends on one's own works ("Self-Power"). And this is incompatible with the doctrine hat one needs grace to be saved in the first place. On the one hand, we are so crushed beneath a burden of bad Karma that we would have no hope of ever working it off ourselves. On the other, we live in a degenerate age when the Dharma is but dimly understood. Facing Scylla and Charybdis in this way, we must be saved by grace ("Other-Power"), or we will not be saved at all. Hence the Pure Land theologians tried to circumvent the clever subterfuges of the self-exalting ego by placing complete and utter reliance on the Other-Power of Amitabha Buddha.

In the end, the Japanese patriarch Shinran wound up recapitulating Martin Luther and John Calvin: he taught that the first inkling of an inclination one felt to call upon the name of the Buddha was itself proof of Amitabha's prevenient grace. One could never have even sought such salvation without already having been given it! We cannot even seek to repent unless we have already been regenerated by the unilateral grace of God. If we were still sinners, we would think of nothing but continuing to sin. There is no question of subtle Christian missionary influence. It is just that the logic of piety, taught not to believe in its own power, and yet having to do something, however minimal and passive, always issues in the same solution, as it did also in Visistadvaita Vedanta Hinduism, which divided into the monkey school (believers must hang on to God's grace like a baby monkey carried by its mother) and the cat school (momma cat simply carries her kittens by the scruff of the neck, like it or not).

Is all this a betrayal of Buddhism with its doctrine of self-reliance? They say no, since a religion based on the negation of self can hardly rely for its success on Self-Power! Interesting point.

So here we have a religion containing the features of crippling original sin, bankrupt and worthless selfhood, salvation by passive faith in the vicarious sufferings of a redeemer (actually a whole stable of them, as in the Catholic calendar of saints), and all of this derived from an infallible scripture, not from one's own cherished intuitions. What is this religion? Buddhism. Christianity. Take your pick. If you prefer something less complex, something more self-reliant, you can always find revamped, streamlined versions of either religion. But, as they stand, neither is all that much different from the other in broad outline. When Maryanne embraced what she called Buddhism as an alternative to Christianity, she had merely exchanged six of one for half a dozen of the other, though she didn't know about at least three of them!

One might contend that Mahayana is a corrupt form of Buddhism, one that has lost sight of the vision of its Founder, whereas Christianity's corresponding doctrines are in continuity with the central vision of its Founder. But this is the worst kind of special pleading. If it happened to the one, it would be surprising if it hadn't happened to the other, too. Max Scheler thought that both religions inevitably suffered the same fate because of the ever-recurrent pattern of religions that exalt a charismatic founder. The founder is first lionized because of his summons for all to follow him in the heroic path. He dies, and the followers form a sectarian community, living out his heroic ethic, necessarily in alienation from the conventional world around them. But time passes and no one finds it any more so easy to live at such a fever pitch of piety and social radicalism. They come to assimilate themselves to the world again, rationalizing this by means of deifying the founder. Now that the life style he taught seems so far beyond the reach of even believers, they conclude his own heroic life must have been the result of his being a superhuman god. Thus no one can be expected to emulate him, and his heroism ceases to be a role-model. Instead, the believers come to regard it as an act done on their behalf so as to absolve them of the sin of not being able to do it! Mediocrity, here we come! And then Luther, Shinran, and the others start in trying to eliminate any vestige of self-effort as impious, even though at first it had been the very basis of the founder's teaching! Such a decline, plainly recognized, at least on some level, in Buddhism, is more characteristic neither of Christianity nor of Buddhism.

Why had my wife's friend been oblivious of all this? My guess is that, like many today, she had really adopted some form of Western pop self-realization therapy and, ironically, called it Buddhism. Harvey Cox foresaw this trivializing trend in his 1977 book Turning East. Shirley MacLaine can call it Buddhism, like Jim Bakker calls his religion Christianity, but neither is fooling me.

It might be better to do what Herman Hesse advocated in his novel Siddhartha: follow the Buddha's path not by slavishly aping him, but by striking out on your own authentic dharma just as he did. How else are you to imitate a great non-conformist except by refusing to conform to him? Have the courage of your own convictions! Don't hide behind supposed authorities by bottling your own product and putting the Buddhist (or Christian) label on it.


Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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