For centuries, Buddhism has been the dominant religion of the Eastern world. Today it remains the predominant religion in China, Japan, Korea, and much of southeast Asia. With the rise of the Asian population in the U.S., Buddhism has made a tremendous impact in the United States. Presently, there are over 300,000 Buddhists in the U.S. It remains the dominant religion in the state of Hawaii and many prominent Americans have accepted this religion, including the former governor of California, Jerry Brown.(1)
Buddhism began as an offspring of Hinduism in the country of India. The founder was Siddhartha Gautama. It is not easy to give an accurate historical account of the life of Gautama, since no biography was recorded until hundreds of years after his death. Today, much of his life story is clouded in myths and legends which arose after his death. Even the best historians of our day have several different--and even contradictory--accounts of Gautama's life.
Siddhartha Gautama was born in approximately 560 B.C. in northern India. His father Suddhodana was the ruler over a district near the Himalayas which is today the country of Nepal. Suddhodana sheltered his son from the outside world and confined him to the palace where he surrounded Gautama with pleasures and wealth. Despite his father's efforts, Gautama one day saw the darker side of life on a trip he took outside the palace walls.
He saw four things that forever changed his life: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a beggar. Deeply distressed by the suffering he saw, he decided to leave the luxury of palace life and begin a quest to find the answer to the problem of pain and human suffering.
Gautama left his family and traveled the country seeking wisdom. He studied the Hindu scriptures under Brahmin priests, but became disillusioned with the teachings of Hinduism. He then devoted himself to a life of extreme asceticism in the jungle. Legend has it that he eventually learned to exist on one grain of rice a day which reduced his body to a skeleton. He soon concluded, however, that asceticism did not lead to peace and self realization but merely weakened the mind and body.
Gautama eventually turned to a life of meditation. While deep in meditation under a fig tree known as the Bohdi tree (meaning, "tree of wisdom"), Gautama experienced the highest degree of God-consciousness called Nirvana. Gautama then became known as Buddha, the "enlightened one." He believed he had found the answers to the questions of pain and suffering. His message now needed to be proclaimed to the whole world.
As he began his teaching ministry, he gained a quick audience with the people of India since many had become disillusioned with Hinduism. By the time of his death at age 80, Buddhism had become a major force in India. Three centuries later it had spread to all of Asia. Buddha never claimed to be deity but rather a "way- shower." However, seven hundred years later, followers of Buddha began to worship him as deity.(2)
The question Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, sought to answer was, Why is there pain and suffering? Also, he held to the Hindu belief of reincarnation: after death one returns to earthly life in a higher or lower form of life according to his good or bad deeds. This belief prompted a second question that needed to be answered, How does one break this rebirth cycle? The basic teachings of Buddhism, therefore, focus on what Gautama believed to be the answer to these questions. These basic tenants are found in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. Let us begin with the Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth is that there is pain and suffering in the world. Gautama realized that pain and suffering are omnipresent in all of nature and human life. To exist means we will all encounter suffering. Birth is painful and so is death. Sickness and old age are painful. Throughout life, all living things encounter suffering.
The Second Noble Truth relates to the cause of suffering. Gautama believed the root cause of suffering is desire. It is the craving for wealth, happiness, and other forms of selfish enjoyment which cause suffering. These cravings can never be satisfied for they are rooted in ignorance.
The Third Noble Truth is the end of all suffering. Suffering will cease when a person can rid himself of all desires.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the extinguishing of all desire by following the eight-fold path. "The eight-fold path is a system of therapy designed to develop habits which will release people from the restrictions caused by ignorance and craving."(3)
Here are the eight steps in following the eight-fold path. The first is the Right Views. One must accept the four noble truths. Step two is the Right Resolve. One must renounce all desires and any thoughts like lust, bitterness, and cruelty. He must harm no living creature. Step three is the Right Speech. One must speak only truth. There can be no lying, slander, or vain talk. Step four is the Right Behavior. One must abstain from sexual immorality, stealing, and all killing.
Step five is the Right Occupation. One must work in an occupation that benefits others and harms no one. Step six is the Right Effort. One must seek to eliminate any evil qualities within and prevent any new ones from arising. One should seek to attain good and moral qualities and develop those already possessed. Seek to grow in maturity and perfection until universal love is attained. Step seven is the Right Contemplation. One must be observant, contemplative, and free of desire and sorrow. The eighth is the Right Meditation. After freeing oneself of all desires and evil, a person must concentrate his efforts in meditation so that he can overcome any sensation of pleasure or pain and enter a state of transcending consciousness and attain a state of perfection. Buddhists believe that through self effort one can attain the state of peace and eternal bliss called Nirvana.
Three important concepts in understanding Buddhism are karma, Samsara, and Nirvana.
Karma refers to the law of cause and effect in a person's life, reaping what one has sown. Buddhists believe that every person must go through a process of birth and rebirth until he reaches the state of nirvana in which he breaks this cycle. According to the law of karma, "You are what you are and do what you do, as a result of what you were and did in a previous incarnation, which in turn was the inevitable outcome of what you were and did in still earlier incarnations."(4) For a Buddhist, what one will be in the next life depends on one's actions in this present life. Buddha believed, unlike Hinduism, that a person can break the rebirth cycle no matter what class he is born into.
The second key concept to understand is the law of Samsara or Transmigration. This is one of the most perplexing and difficult concepts in Buddhism to understand. The law of Samsara holds that everything is in a birth and rebirth cycle. Buddha taught that people do not have individual souls. The existence of an individual self or ego is an illusion. There is no eternal substance of a person which goes through the rebirth cycle. What is it then that goes through the cycle if not the individual soul? What goes through the rebirth cycle is only a set of feelings, impressions, present moments, and the karma that is passed on. "In other words, as one process leads to another, ... so one's human personality in one existence is the direct cause of the type of individuality which appears in the next."(5) The new individual in the next life will not be exactly the same person, but there will be several similarities. Just how close in identity they will be, Buddha did not define.
The third key concept is Nirvana. The term means "the blowing out" of existence. Nirvana is very different from the Christian concept of heaven. Nirvana is not a place like heaven but rather a state of being. What exactly it is, Buddha never really articulated.
Nirvana is an eternal state of being. It is the state in which the law of karma, and the rebirth cycle come to an end. It is the end of suffering, a state where there are no desires and the individual consciousness comes to an end. Although to our Western minds this may sound like annihilation, Buddhists would object to such a notion. Gautama never gave an exact description of Nirvana, but his closest reply was this. "There is disciples, a condition, where there is neither earth nor water, neither air nor light, neither limitless space, nor limitless time, neither any kind of being, neither ideation nor non-ideation, neither this world nor that world. There is neither arising nor passing-away, nor dying, neither cause nor effect, neither change nor standstill."(6) Although no Buddhist really understands the condition of Nirvana, it is their eternal hope.
It may have occurred to the reader that in our discussion thus far no mention has been made of God or an eternal deity. It is clear that Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, did not claim to be divine. He claimed to be the one to point the way to Nirvana, but it was up to each individual to find his own way there.
The concept of a personal God does not fit into the Buddhist system of religion. Today there are many sects of Buddhism. Many differ in their concept of the divine and of Buddha. In general, Buddhists are pantheistic in their view of God. Many view God as an impersonal force which is made up of all living things and holds the universe together.
Here are what some of the most prominent of scholars say of the Buddhist view of God. Dr. John Noss states, "there is no sovereign Person in the heavens holding all together in unity, there is only the ultimate impersonal unity of being itself, whose peace enfolds the individual self when it ceases to call itself 'I' and dissolves in the featureless purity of Nirvana, as a drop of spray is merged in its mother sea."(7)
Here is what the late Dr. Suzuki, one of the greatest teachers of Zen Buddhism, says about his concept of God: "If God after making the world puts Himself outside it, He is no longer God. If He separates Himself from the world or wants to separate Himself, He is not God. The world is not the world when it is separated from God. God must be in the world and the world in God."(8)
Since Buddhism in general does not believe in a personal God or divine being, it does not have worship, praying, or praising of a divine being. It offers no form of redemption, forgiveness, heavenly hope, or final judgment. Buddhism is, therefore, more of a moral philosophy, an ethical way of life.
Professor Kraemer describes the Buddhist system as "a non-theistic ethical discipline, a system of self training, anthropocentric, stressing ethics and mind-culture to the exclusion of theology."(9)
Since Gautama's death, many sects have developed within Buddhism. Many of these sects differ in many fundamental ways and comparing them to one another is like comparing two separate religions. Many sects have developed their own unique concept of God. Some are pantheistic in their view of God. Others are atheistic. Still others have developed a polytheistic system of gods. Some have combined pantheism and polytheism. Several sects have elevated Gautama (or Buddha) to the level of a savior or divine being although it is clear he never claimed to be a deity. Other sects have combined some of the doctrines of God from other religions with Buddhism.
Since Buddha never emphasized his concept of the divine, Buddhism is left with some life's deepest questions unanswered, questions such as the origin of the universe and the purpose of man's existence.
It is quite clear that Christianity and Buddhism differ from one another in fundamental ways. Some sects of Buddhism have tried to synchronize the two together. However, the two are so different, they cannot both be right at the same time, nor can the two be blended together. Here is a comparison of these two religions.
Much of the Buddhist scriptures and sayings attributed to Gautama were written about four hundred years after his death. By the time they were written, Buddhism had split into many sects. What do we have then? Even the best scholars are not sure of the accuracy of the Buddhist scriptures. In Christianity, however, we have an accurate historical account written by eyewitnesses to Jesus and the events surrounding His life.
The two differ in their concept of God. For Buddhists in general, the Absolute does not play a vital role in daily living. Gautama said little about his concept of God. Buddha denied the existence of a personal God but was monistic in his view of the Absolute as an impersonal force made up of all living things. The Bible teaches of a God who rules the universe, and cares for man in a personal way. Psalm 46:10 states, "Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted among the earth."
It is clear that Buddha never claimed to be deity. Although several sects have elevated him to athe status of a god, he clearly claimed to be only the way-shower to Nirvana. Jesus, however, claimed to be God and not simply a way-shower but instead the only way to eternal life. Jesus said in John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 1:1 also states, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
There is another clear distinction between these two religions. Buddhism offers neither assurance of forgiveness or eternal life. Buddhists hope to enter into the state of Nirvana, but there is no clear, objective proof or teaching on what occurs beyond the grave. Even Buddha himself was not certain what lay beyond death. He left no clear teaching on Nirvana or eternity. What he did leave are philosophical speculations. Today the body of Buddha lies in a grave in Kusinara, at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains. The facts of life after death still remain an unsolved mystery in Buddhism.
In Christianity we have One who amazed His audience because He taught eternal truths with authority. His authority came from the fact that He existed before creation, and He proved His claims by rising from the dead. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a proven fact of history and clearly demonstrates Christ's authority over sin and death. When witnessing to a Buddhist, ask him this: "Do you have tangible proof of what occurs after death?" All the Buddhist has is hope in a teaching Buddha was not sure of. As Christians, we have a certain hope in a risen Savior. There is no guessing what happens beyond the grave because Christ alone has conquered the grave.
© 1994 Probe Ministries
1. Walter Martin, Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis: Bethany House 1985), p. 261.
2. Kenneth Boa, Cults, World Religions, and the Occult (Wheaton: Victor Books, (1977) p. 35.
3. Ibid. p. 32.
4. Davis Taylor and Clark Offner, The World's Religions, Norman Anderson, ed. (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 1975), p. 174.
5. John Noss, Man's Religions (New York: Macmillan Company, 1968), p. 182.
6. Taylor & Offner, p. 177.
7. Noss, p. 183.
8. D. T. Suzuki, The Field of Zen (London: The Buddhist Society, 1969), p. 16.
9. Taylor & Offner, p. 177.
Boa, Kenneth. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1977.
Gard, Richard. Buddhism. New York: George Braziller, 1962.
Martin, Walter. The Kingdom of the Cults. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985.
_____ The New Cults. Ventura: Regal Books, 1980.
McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart. Handbook of Today's Religions. San Bernadino: Here's Life, 1982.
Noss, John. Man's Religions. New York: Macmillan Company, 1968.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. World Religions From Ancient History to the Present. New York: Facts on File, 1971.
Suzuki, D.T. The Field of Zen. London: Harper and Row, 1969.
_____ The Gospel According to Zen. New York: Mentor Books, 1970.