Buddhism/Part 6

By: John Ankerberg, John Weldon; ©2000
In this section, we will briefly evaluate Buddhist attempts to reach Christians by maintaining there are few or no essential differences between the two faiths, and then proceed to show how the basic philosophy of Buddhism makes such attempts futile. Such attempts may indeed be fruitful for Buddhist proselytisation, but they are fundamentally dishonest.

Buddhism vs. Christianity

In this section, we will briefly evaluate Buddhist attempts to reach Christians by maintaining there are few or no essential differences between the two faiths, and then proceed to show how the basic philosophy of Buddhism makes such attempts futile. Such attempts may indeed be fruitful for Buddhist proselytisation, but they are fundamentally dishonest.

The Christian Research Journal for Summer 1996 contained the following account: “A few months ago my mother sent me a monthly newsletter that the San Jose Buddhist church distributes among its members. My mother thought the major article in the newsletter would prove what she had been saying for nearly 30 years — that the differences between Buddhism and Christianity are insignificant compared to what they have in common, and therefore any further discussion between us about these differences would be a waste of time.”[1]

That newsletter article by Buddhist Rev. Ronald Y. Nakasone claimed that Jesus and Buddha taught basically the same things and that Jesus was “close to Buddhaood.” Like many other Buddhists, Nakasone based his rejection of the Christ of the New Testament on the findings of liberal theologians, in particular, Burton L. Mack of the so-called Jesus Seminar (See Appendix). In a similar fashion, those who disagreed with his assessment of Jesus were said to be intolerant and narrow minded.

On p.47, the same issue contained a critique of the best-selling book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hahn. Hahn believes that Christians who teach that Jesus is the only Way are potential murderers who foster “religious intolerance and discrimination.”

Yet one can only ask, Aren’t Buddhists who argue this way being intolerant of Christianity? Aren’t they discriminating against Christianity when they distort Christianity and make it teach things it does not? This is clearly evident in Hahn’s attempt to re-interpret “true” Christianity as Buddhism. He claims, “I do not think there is that much difference between Christians and Buddhists” and “when you are a truly happy Christian, you are also a Buddhist. And vice versa.” Thus, in order to support Buddhist doctrine, Christian distinctives are ignored and Christian doctrine is reinterpreted as Buddhist belief. How is that fair or ethical? For example, even though the Buddhist concept of nirvana and the Biblical concept of the kingdom of God are contradictory and world’s apart philosophically and theologically, Hahn sees them as equivalent: “Buddhists and Christians know that nirvana or the kingdom of God is within our hearts.” Again, is this being fair to Christianity? Is it being tolerant of Christian beliefs? Hahn also says, “We are of the same reality as Jesus…Jesus is not only our Lord, but he is also our Father, our Teacher, our Brother, and our Self.” Again, he is egregiously making Christianity teach Buddhist beliefs. Yet Hahn claims that it “would be cruel” to have Buddhists “abandoned their own spiritual roots and embrace your [Christian] faith.” But this is exactly what he asks Christians to do with their own spiritual roots — to abandon Christianity and embrace Buddhism. Is this being tolerant of Christianity?

Buddhist-Christian dialogue will only be equitable when Buddhists treat Christianity and Christians fairly. This means they must stop assuming their own presuppositions about life and religion are absolute truth while Christian beliefs are as changeable as the seasons,based on nothing more than Buddhists personal preference.

In books of this nature we often find such double standards. Quite in error, Christianity is held out as irrational, intolerant etc. while Buddhism is declared to be supremely rational, open-minded etc. To the contrary, what we actually find is that Buddhists are genuinely intolerant of Christianity –and their own doctrines are irrational. For example, the same review quotes Hahn as declaring, “for a Buddhist to be attached to any doctrine, even a Buddhist one, is to betray the Buddha” because Buddhists believe it is impossible for a doctrine to adequately convey reality. Further, “nothing can be talked about, perceived, or described by representation.” Yet Hahn and other Buddhist are clearly attached to Buddhist doctrine since they spend so much time writing books in defense of it and trying to live it. And of course, if nothing can be described by representation, the very words Buddhist writers use to describe Buddhism are meaningless.

Thus, in an era pregnant with tolerance for everything, some Christians have embraced Buddhism while numerous attempts have been made to “unify” Buddhism and Christianity by ecumenically minded members of both faiths. Friendly Buddhist and Christian encounters are the vogue on some university campuses. Through no fault of its own however, “Christianity” is frequently the loser in such encounters. Thus, mainline Christians who have no real comprehension of biblical Christianity but are fascinated by the alluring or mystical nature of Buddhist metaphysics may leave their “faith” and become Buddhists. Or, they may maintain an odd mixture of both religions, one that is ultimately unfaithful to both. As we have indicated, Buddhists who “accept” Christianity merely do so to transform it into Buddhism. Professor of Buddhism and Japanese Studies at Tokyo and Harvard Universities respectively, Masaharu Anesaki, illustrates this by his assimilation of Jesus with the Buddha: “In short we Buddhists are ready to accept Christianity; nay, more, our faith in Buddha is faith in Christ. We see Christ because we see Buddha….We can hope not in vain for the second advent of Christ [that is] the appearance of the [prophesied] future Buddha Metteya.”[2]

Nevertheless, rather than seeking a “unity” among these religions, the truth is much closer to the gut feeling of Zen Buddhist D.T. Suzuki, who states, as he undoubtedly reflects upon the Buddhist concept of suffering: “Whenever I see a crucified figure of Christ, I cannot help thinking of the gap that lies deep between Christianity and Buddhism.”[3] Or the Buddhist monk who told us, “Buddhism and Christianity are forever irreconcilable–one is based on enlightenment, the other on delusion.”

The truth is that purported similarities between Buddhism and Christianity are only surface. For example, many have claimed a similarity between Jesus Christ’s saving role in Christianity and the Bodhisattva’s savior role as given in later Buddhism. But these roles are entirely contradictory. In Christianity, “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). This means He saves us from the penalty of our sins by taking God’s judgment of sin in His own Person. Jesus paid the penalty of sin (death) for sinners by dying in their place. Thus, He offers a free gift of salvation to anyone simply for believing and accepting what He has done on their behalf (Jn. 3:16). The central ideas involved in Christ’s saving role– God’s holiness, propitiatory atonement, forgiveness of sin, salvation as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Christ, etc., are all foreign to Buddhism.

The Bodhisattva’s role of savior is thus entirely different than that of Christ’s. The Bodhisattva has no concern with sin in an ultimate sense, only with the end of suffering. He has no concept of God’s wrath against sin or the need for a propitiatory atonement. He has no belief in an infinite personal God who created men and women in His image. He has no belief in a loving God who freely forgives sinners. His only sacrifice is his postponement of entering nirvana so that he can help others find Buddhist enlightenment. Having achieved self-perfection, the Bodhisattva could freely enter nirvana at death. Instead, he chooses another incarnation to help others attain their own self-perfection and nirvana more quickly.

Thus, those who argue there is an essential similarity between the Buddhist and Christian concepts of a savior are wrong

In fact, at their core, Buddhism and Christianity are irreconcilable, as far removed as the East and West. Indeed, virtually every major Christian doctrine is denied in Buddhism and vice versa. Merging the two traditions only results in a disservice to both.

For their part, Buddhists have long recognized the differences between the two faiths. The knowledgeable Buddhist is aware that the doctrines and teachings of Biblical Christianity are an enemy rather than a friend, for Christian faith openly teaches those things which Buddhists reject as mere ignorance and/or as spiritual hindrances; further Christianity openly opposes those things which Buddhism endorses an essential for genuine enlightenment.

For example, Christianity is interwoven with the monotheistic grandeur of an infinite, personal, triune God (Mt. 28:19; Jn. 17:3; Isa. 43:10-11, 44:6); Buddhism is agnostic and practically speaking, atheistic (or in later form, polytheistic).

In Christianity, its central teaching involves the absolute necessity for belief in Jesus Christ as personal Savior from sin (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12; I Tim. 2:5-6); Buddhism has no Savior from sin and even in the Mahayana tradition, as we have seen, the savior concepts are quite dissimilar.

Christianity stresses salvation by grace through faith alone (Jn. 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9); Buddhism stresses enlightenment by works through meditative practices that seek the alleviation of “ignorance” and desire.

Christianity promises forgiveness of all sin now (Col. 2:13; Eph. 1:7) and the eventual elimination of sin and suffering for all eternity (Rev. 21:3-4). On the other hand, Buddhism, since it holds there is no God to offend, promises not the forgiveness and eradication of sin, but rather the elimination of suffering (eventually) and the ultimate eradication of the individual.

Wherever we look philosophically, we see the contrasts between these faiths. Christianity stresses salvation from sin, not from life itself (1 Jn. 2:2). Christianity exalts personal existence as innately good, since man was created in God’s image, and thus Christianity promises eternal life and fellowship with a personal God (Gen. 1:26, 31; Rev. 21:3-4). Christianity has a distinctly defined teaching in the afterlife (heaven or hell, e.g., Mt. 25:46; Rev. 20:10-15). It promises eternal immortality for man as man–but perfected in every way (Rev. 21:3-4).

On the other hand, Buddhism teaches reincarnation, and has only a mercurial nirvana wherein man no longer remains man or, where, in Mahayana, there exists temporary heavens or hells and the final “deification” of “man” through a merging with the ultimate pantheistic-cosmic Buddha nature. But Christianity denies that reincarnation is a valid belief, based on the fact of Christ’s propitiatory atonement for sin. In other words, if Christ died to forgive all sin, there is no reason for a person to pay the penalty for their own sin (“karma”) over many lifetimes (Col. 2:13; Heb. 9:27; 10:10, 14; Eph. 1:7).

Consider further contrasts. Biblical Christianity rejects pagan mysticism and all occultism (e.g., Deut. 18:9-12); Buddhism accepts or actively endorses them.

In Christianity life itself is good and given honor and meaning; in Buddhism one finds it difficult to deny that life is ultimately not worth living–for life and suffering are inseparable. Thus, in Christianity, Jesus Christ came that men “might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10); in Buddhism, Buddha came that men might simply rid themselves of personal existence. In Christianity, the world is the loving creation of God; in Buddhism it is only the temporary illusion of a deluded mind.

In Christianity, God will either glorify or punish the spirit of man (Jn. 5:28-29); in Buddhism no spirit exists to be glorified or punished. In Christianity, absolute morality is a central theme (Eph. 1:4), in Buddhism it is secondary or peripheral at best.

Buddhism is essentially humanistic, stressing man’s self-achievement. Christianity is essentially theistic, stressing God’s self-revelation and gracious initiative on behalf of man’s helpless moral and spiritual condition. Thus, in Buddhism man alone is the author of salvation; Christianity sees this as an absolute impossibility because innately, man has no power to save himself (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).

We could go on, but suffice it to say the form of romantic humanism that inspires liberal religionists to see basic similarities in the two faiths is no more than wishful thinking. It is not utterly surprising, however, that Western religious humanists would promote Buddhism, for in both systems man is the measure of all things (a god of sorts), even if in the latter the end result is a form of personal self-annihilation. But to the extent both are humanistic, they compass the antithesis of Christianity, whose goal is to glorify God and not man (Jer. 17:5; Jude 24-25).

As far as glorifying God is concerned, this is unimportant and irrelevant to Buddhists. But biblically, to the extent God is ignored or opposed, to that extent man must correspondingly suffer. Here we see the ultimate irony of Buddhism: in ignoring God, Buddhists feel they can escape suffering; in fact this will only perpetuate it forever. This is the real tragedy of Buddhism, especially of so-called Christian Buddhism. The very means to escape suffering (true faith in the biblical Christ) is rejected in favor of a self-salvation which can only result in eternal suffering (Mt. 25:46; Rev. 20:10-15).

The following discussion further illustrates how Buddhism seeks to eliminate that which Christianity sees as foundational: 1) the glorification of God and Christ, 2) a real permanent existence, and 3) personal individual salvation:

Buddhism rejects the God of Christian worship

In this three volume Hinduism and Buddhism, Sir Charles Eliot acknowledges that: “On the whole it is correct to say that Buddhism (except perhaps in very exceptional sects) has always taken and still takes a point of view which has little in common with European theism. The world is not thought of as the handiwork of a divine personality, nor the moral law as his will.”[4] Several Buddhists have told us, “The Christian God is irrelevant.” A former Buddhist told us, “One of my favorite Tibetan Lamas told me: ‘We simply don’t have a clue what these Jews and Christians mean when they talk about their God.'” Buddhism is fundamentally atheistic, and therefore the words of the Psalmist come to mind, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”

Buddhism rejects God’s creation

While Theravada believes reality is temporarily “real,” it is nevertheless insubstantial, impermanent, in a continual state of flux. It is not as God’s creation is now–real, nor as it will be–eternal, but perfect.. Thus, Theravada would deny the universe will have an eternal existence, as Christianity teaches, because only nirvana is permanent. For Theravada nirvana is set in contrast to samsara which is the world of impermanent existence as we know it.

The Mahayanists, on the other hand, believe that in addition to its constant flux, the universe is “empty”–that is, broken down to its smallest components, the universe is “nothing” in and of itself and ultimately “non-existent.” We see this Mahayanist perspective in Buddhism Its Doctrines and Methods by Tibetan Buddhist Alexandra David-Neel:

The elements called illusion, desire, karma, and birth, which constitute the individual life, have no real existence in the absolute meaning of this word; they have none even in the restricted sense as regards the conditions of life in samsara. The rope which was taken for a snake is not in itself a snake, nor is it ever a snake, either in the darkness or in the light. What is it, then, that is called phenomenal reality (samsara)? Obsessed by the unreal demons of their “ego” and their “mind,” stupid people–those who are of the world–imagine that they can perceive separate entities, whereas in reality these do not exist….[5]

Buddhism rejects Christian salvation as ignorance

In the Christian sense, Buddhists have no concept of a personal creator, and no concept of a savior. In Buddhism, the concept of Christian salvation is not only irrelevant, it is even spiritually dangerous. Why? Because it seeks to save and perpetuate an illusion, the personal self.

Christianity “glorifies” the “lower self,” i.e., man created in the image of God. But according to Buddhism, any desire to affirm this image and perpetuate it eternally would logically be considered evil: “Desire in itself is not evil. It is desire to affirm the lower self, to live in it, cling to it, identify oneself with it, instead of with the Universal self, that is evil.”[6] But this is the essence of what it means to be human according to Christianity.

In a clinging to temporal existence, to the personal desires which Christianity finds good (e.g., the desire to glorify God and to live the Christian life), in hoping for personal immortality– and much more that is Christian–all these, according to Buddhism, constitute an ignorant approach to life preventing enlightenment, or true salvation.

By definition then, Christianity insulates against and prevents Buddhist enlightenment through its belief in God, dualism, an individual spirit, the importance of Christian living, in its trust in an atoning Savior, even in the utility of suffering for salvation and sanctification (e.g., Romans 5:3-11; 1 Peter 4:19; 1 John 2:2), etc. The reverse is also true; Buddhism insulates against and prevents biblical salvation. Where God, Christ and the atonement are denied, there can be no salvation. How then can Buddhism look with favor upon a Christianity which opposes its first loves? More graphically, how can the serene and compassionate Buddha sit and smile unperturbed at the bloody cross? In Buddhism: “Ignorance, then, is not only lack of knowledge, but wrong knowledge; it is that which hides things and prevents one from seeing them as they are in reality.”[7] And, “There is no mention of a Supreme Divinity, nor any promise of superhuman aid for suffering humanity.”[8]

In Conversations: Christian and Buddhist, Father Dom Aelred Graham (author of Zen Catholicism) talked with various Buddhists, in this case Buddhist instructor Fujimoto Roshi. Roshi is speaking: “Father Graham asked whether it is possible for a Christian to attain Enlightenment. I would say that it is. However, as long as Christians are attached to the Christianity [i.e., exclusivistic, doctrinal Christianity], as they have been, it is not possible.”[9]

In light of our discussion to date, we must conclude that Buddhism and Christianity are antagonistic to one another; only when this fact is accepted will Christians feel the necessity to uncompromisingly share the truth of Christ with Buddhists; only then will Buddhists recognize an urgent choice is to be made:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (John 14:6)
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent. (John 17:3)
The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. (I John 5:10-12)


  1. Christian Research Journal, Summer 1996, p. 8.
  2. Masaharu Anesaki, “How Christianity Appeals to a Japanese Buddhist,” in David W. McKain (ed.), Christianity: Some Non-Christian Appraisals, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976), pp. 102-103, italics in original.
  3. D.T. Suzuki, “Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist,” in McKain (ed.), p. 111.
  4. Sir Charles Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism, Vol. I. (NY: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1971), p. xcv
  5. David-Neel, p. 247.
  6. Stephen Neill, Christian Faith and Other Faiths (2nd ed.) (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 117.
  7. Ibid., p. 51.
  8. Ibid., p. 28.
  9. Dom Aelred Graham, Conversations: Christian and Buddhist (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1968), p. 104, second emphasis added.

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