I was a Buddhist for a while in my late 20s and early 30s before returning to the church. I found a lot to like in Buddhist focus on the spiritual journey, letting go, meditation, and compassion. Unlike other religions, Buddhism does not, by design, want you to take on particular doctrines. Buddhists, in general, espouse certain ideas like the Four Noble Truths, the 8 fold path, and non-Self, but to create a dogma out of those ideas is antithetical to what Buddhism stands for.
Buddhism’s popularity in the Western World is, I think, a 1960s reaction against dogmatism. Many mainline protestant churches attempted to follow suit in denying any particular belief system. Unfortunately, this gave people little reason to attend church or be a part of a denomination. We had gone from having very specific doctrinal differences to saying none of it really matters, you do you and come to church, by the way.
Buddhism and its parent Hinduism have filtered into American and European culture through practices like meditation, yoga, and therapeutic psychology. These practices tend to be severed from their spiritual roots or combined with New Age beliefs that bear little resemblance to the complex ideas from which these religions spawned or worse incorporated into Western-style self-improvement obsessions and fitness culture. This has led to the false belief that Buddhism isn’t really a religion but a set of values that can be incorporated into any other belief system.
Buddhism is often portrayed as atheistic, but it actually has a substantial foundation upon Hindu beliefs in the supernatural–reincarnation, karma, and the wheel of rebirths and deaths. In fact, I will argue that Buddhism makes absolutely no sense without its supernatural foundation any more than Christianity does. What Buddhism does, however, is deny any specific beliefs about God or the Soul and this crucial difference makes Buddhism largely incompatible with Christian belief.
That is not to say that you cannot adopt bits and pieces of Buddhist thought and practice as a Christian, but if, fundamentally, your belief system rests upon a loving God who gave his only begotten Son to save humanity, then you are not adopting Buddhism at all.
Buddhism was the outcome of the search its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, undertook for happiness, leaving his life as a royal prince to wander the wilderness. Gautama’s search resulted in his discovery that happiness rests in freedom from suffering. He achieved this in what is called Enlightenment and took on the title Buddha or Lord Buddha. To explain this to others he came up with the Four Noble Truths which you can take as a philosophical argument. I will paraphrase them here.
- Suffering is a part of life.
- This suffering arises from craving or attachment to things.
- Cessation of suffering can come from letting go of things and not craving.
- The way to achieve this letting go is the eight fold path.
The Eight Fold Path involves Right action, speech, and livelihood; Right effort, mindfulness, and concentration; and Right resolve and view.
Contrast this to a statement of Christian belief, such as the Apostles’ Creed, and you see that, while Christian belief is focused on the actions of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all elements of the supernatural foundation of Christianity, the Buddhist creed here does not seem to invoke anything supernatural.
Unlike Christ, the Buddha was careful to prevent his followers from worshiping him as a god. This is despite the large Hindu pantheon which certainly had room for one more. When asked about the existence of God, the Buddha was silent. He would not answer. When asked about the Atman, the Soul or Self, that was such an important part of Hindu belief, the Buddha rejected the notion of a permanent, unchanging Self.
Thus, it seems as if Buddhism is fundamentally agnostic.
Yet, if you look more closely, it does have a foundation in the supernatural, specifically the doctrines of karma and reincarnation that were central to Hindu beliefs.
First, philosophically, you can ask if, taken alone, the Four Noble Truths make sense without any supernatural underpinning. We can’t deny that the first point is self-evident. Everyone suffers. The second point seems to make sense. All suffering is, at its core, a mental process or state of wanting or a deprivation. Indeed, this is similar to Aquinas’s definition of evil. If we want all that to go away, get rid of the cause: wanting and deprivation! Buddhism suggests we can do this purely by changing our state of mind and not the outer world. We can doubt if #3 is achievable, but if one were to achieve it it seems as if you would be free of suffering for sure. If we don’t want anything or need anything other than what we have and we don’t want to do away with anything that we do have, no matter how painful it is, then we should be content, correct? Even physical pain cannot cause us to suffer if we don’t crave for it to go away.
The Eight Fold Path is vague as stated but the Buddha and his followers taught that it could be followed by practicing various forms of mediation and mental habits that enforced impermanence and the non-existence of Self. The way to know you have it right is by trying until you do under the guidance of teachers. We can be skeptical of that, but, if we suspend our disbelief that everything can be done “Right” and take it as an ideal circumstance, then yes it makes sense.
So at best we accept the philosophical argument of the Four Noble Truths, but we can be skeptical that it is achievable. The Buddha says that it is because he did it, but we can also be skeptical of his claim.
Thus, already Buddhism is making a claim that is, if not supernatural, then an unsupported hypothesis about what a human can achieve.
In that case, we see a quicker and surer way to achieving #3: die.
In an atheistic worldview that includes only one life, the quickest way to escape suffering is for life to end because life is the source of suffering. Since life is meaningless and will end anyway, prolonging it is pointless.
Buddhism obviously doesn’t like that answer, and it has good reason for not liking it. It has to do with reincarnation.
In a worldview that includes reincarnation, ending your life would simply lead to another one and more suffering. Still, if there is no connection between your current life and the future life, then you can argue that achieving #3 in one life is prolonging the inevitable. You will die and go back to suffering. In that case, there may be no reason not to go the Epicurean route and squeeze as much pleasure out of life as possible. Virtue is purely a feel good enterprise that you can take or leave.
Buddhism doesn’t like that answer either, and it has good reason for that too. It has to do with karma.
Karma is, roughly, the impersonal force that creates justice in the universe. It is, in some sense, a God substitute.
If you put reincarnation and karma together, then it functions as a punishment and reward system, from which you cannot escape through death. According to Buddhism, karma+reincarnation leads to a cycle, visualized as a wheel, of birth and death. Buddha preached that no matter how good a life you lived, you would eventually find yourself at the “bottom” of the wheel again after a few lives. Virtue could not save you.
The way out of this cycle, the Buddha preached, was to achieve Enlightenment. Enlightenment, therefore, functions in the Buddhist worldview similarly to salvation in the Christian one. The difference is that, while salvation is the free grace of God, Enlightenment, you have to achieve. Achieving enlightenment, then, is the work, through karma, over perhaps several lifetimes to escape continual suffering.
Theologically, therefore, Buddhism isn’t about escaping suffering in this one life at all. It is about escaping the wheel of birth and death.
If we remove these supernatural beliefs from Buddhism, it reduces to psychology, and the Eight Fold Path falls completely apart. One can achieve some happiness in this life by letting go of attachments, but there is really no point since life will end anyway. Worse still, without a system that enforces justice in the world and gives life meaning, there is no reason to act in a moral way except perhaps to get some psychological bonus points. It is not clear, however, that a particular set of moral behaviors, in a relativistic morality, are better for ones own personal happiness. Psychology, instead, enforces personal values and enacting those in the world, no matter what they might be.
Thus, Buddhist atheists suffer from the same problems as ordinary atheists. They cannot justify moral behavior, including compassion. Their lives have no meaning. Their main hope is to escape the need for life to have meaning in an abstract state of Enlightenment where meaning does not exist. Once they die, all that work will vanish, and they will be forgotten with time in an uncaring universe. Thus, only Buddhists that accept the supernatural existence of the wheel can rely on enlightenment for salvation.
Christians, meanwhile, believe that salvation comes from grace and not from states of mind. While letting go is a good habit to get into, the idea that salvation lies at the end of such practices goes against Christian beliefs. God does not grant salvation based on what you do, but only by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Christian teaching is clear that people are resurrected, not reincarnated. While there is some suggestion that reincarnation is possible, such as many who believed that John the Baptist was the prophet Elijah, this was not the general case. Those who died do not return to Earth until the Day of Judgement.
Meanwhile, karma can be likened to God’s law or God’s justice, but it is very clear that God administers it, not an abstract force. Thus, while God can be merciful, karma cannot.
Buddhism does bear some similarity to Christianity in that it believes that we are all condemned to suffer and it accepts an absolute form of morality. It also rejects the pagan “works contract” belief system that doing good will bring you reward in heaven. The reasons for that suffering and the way out are completely different supernatural processes, however.
The point is that a person cannot be Buddhist and Christian at the same time. You can be one and take on beliefs and practices from the other, but fundamentally they have different world views that are incompatible.
Christianity is software that runs on a Jewish operating system that emphasizes the righteousness and sovereignty of the creator God and His personal involvement in the world. One gets in right relationship with God through faith.
Buddhism is software that runs on a Hindu operating system that emphasizes a much more impersonal reality. One gets in right relationship with this reality by spiritual achievement.
In Christian practice we talk about spiritual maturity but there is no such thing as spiritual achievement. In Buddhism there is no such thing as grace.