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Buddhism and Christianity: Complementary Worldviews
According to the Gospel of Matthew, when a wealthy young man came to Jesus, and asked him how he might be made perfect, Jesus advised the eager young man to keep the commandments and essentially adhere to the Golden Rule to be good. But when the young man persisted and asked the Savior for more advice, Jesus said that the man should sell all he owned and follow Him. Jesus said that the man should sell all he owned and seek to be rewarded in heaven, not on earth. But the young man turned away, saddened that he would give up his great wealth to achieve spiritual perfection. Jesus commented to his disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:28). However, in the Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the Sakya tribe of Nepal, in approximately 566 BC, did just what Jesus advised. The Buddha was born to a wealthy man and ruler, on the second tier of the class system of ancient India, just below the exalted Brahman priestly class. His father protected the boy, sensing his religious vocation, from the sights of old age, sickness, and death. However, when the young Siddhartha discovered that these aspects of life were inevitable in earthy existence, Siddhartha cast off his wealth and social position in search of enlightenment (Boeree, "The Life of Siddhartha Gautama," 1999).
II. Background & Major Beliefs
The enlightenment found by the Buddha was a teaching of profound truth and compassion. "The Buddha said that it didn't matter what a person's status in the world was, or what their background or wealth or nationality might be. All were capable of enlightenment, and all were welcome into the Sangha," or the brotherhood of the first monks (Boeree, "The Life of Siddhartha Gautama," 1999). Core to the Buddhist understanding of the world is what the Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths. These are often translated that life is suffering; suffering is due to attachment; attachment can be overcome, and there is a path for accomplishing these facts. This is one of the most misinterpreted aspects of Buddhist teaching. Buddhists do not believe that life is miserable, but that the nature of earthly existence is transient. A failure to understand that how much money we have, if we live in a prestigious area of the country, or the other petty obsessions of our lives, are not important in the grand scheme of things leads to suffering. Instead, one must accept the changing nature of life with peace and resignation (Boeree, "The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom" 1999).
Another fundamental, core concept of Buddhism is its emphasis on compassion, as articulated in what Buddhist call the eightfold path. The first cornerstone of this path is that of a right view of the world, or a true understanding of the four noble truths and the falseness of thinking about the importance of one's worldly struggles. Then, the next step on the path is finding a sense of right aspiration, a truly felt desire to free the self from attachment, ignorance and hatefulness. The fourth step is that of right speech, or abstaining from lying, gossiping, or hurtful talk. The Buddha felt strongly against these speech habits because such practices involve the individual in pettiness and judgmental attitudes towards other -- these attitudes cultivate a sense of superiority, not compassion. The Buddha would no doubt agree with the sentiment that 'he should throw the first stone who is without sin' (Boeree, "The Basics of Buddhism Wisdom" 1999).
The next step on the eightfold path is right action which involves abstaining from hurtful behaviors towards others. Examples of such behavior include killing, stealing, and careless sexuality that are used to divert the mind from the truth spiritual quest for Enlightenment. The next step that of right livelihood, means making one's living in a way that is not questionable or tainted with cruelty. A person cannot harm others six days of the week, in other words, and pray on Sunday, according to the Buddhist system of beliefs (Boeree, "The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom" 1999).
The ideal of right effort means conducting a real, soul-searching inventory of one's thoughts -- it is not enough to merely behave compassionately, but rather unproductive external and external qualities must be abandoned. Goodness is a process, not merely a destination. Achieving right mindfulness means focusing on the body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in such a way as to overcome craving, hatred, and ignorance. And right concentration emphasizes the need to continually seek understanding through meditation and other means, "in such a way as to progressively realize a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness" (Boeree, "The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom" 1999).
Buddhism spread through East Asia. It was not well-received in the Buddha's original India, as he failed to extinguish the caste system there. However, in other regions it flourished, including in Tibet, China, and Japan. Currently, in the controversy with officially atheistic China, the spiritual leader the Dali Lama is fighting to uphold his people's right to practice their religion. In Japan, Buddhism and other aspects of the culture have frequently fused with original Shinto practices, just as Buddhism fused with Confucianism in China. Because Buddhism is not a theocratic religion, in other words, it is not as focused on the dominance of one or many gods like Western faiths, it has proven very flexible in melding with other traditions ("The History, Practice, and Philosophy of Buddhism, Buddha 101, 2000).
III. Obstacles and Practical Suggestions
One problem some Christians have with Buddhism is its lack of a theocratic view of the universe. It is true, for a religion that acknowledges only one God, this seems like a very major problem! But on the other hand, in its evolution, Buddhism as a philosophy has proven very accommodating to local traditions. The Buddhist stress upon compassion and a nonjudgmental attitude towards others is certainly keeping with the Christian belief in faith. Its stress upon a lack of worldliness and focus on spiritual reflection, rather than upon physical practices of faith or upon accumulating worldly treasures is also quite compatible with the Christian worldview. It is a profoundly pacific philosophy, stressing the need to achieve an accommodating relationship with all of God's creatures.
Another objection to Buddhism in the eyes of many Christians is its ideology of reincarnation, which is present, to greater and lesser degrees, amongst different Buddhist sects. However, this again should not be seen as necessarily a 'point' against Buddhism's ability to be harmonious with Christian teachings, given it is really an expression of the 'Golden Rule,' that what one does to someone will then be visited 'back' upon one's self in the form of karma. Many Buddhists today see reincarnation as less literal, than metaphorical, although this varies from tradition to tradition, and between sects. Perhaps a more serious objection, however, to Buddhism is its doctrine of the soul, or lack thereof. Buddhism does not see the soul as a moral entity.
Despite the idea of reincarnation, even more fundamental to Buddhism is the idea that the soul is not a fixed entity, but instead it is a series of aggregates of energies or wills that are then dissipated when this collection of energies achieves Enlightenment, and grows quiet. The idea of Enlightenment is focused on right mindfulness, not an acceptance of doctrine, as it is in Christianity (Boeree, "The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom," 1999). This is probably what makes Buddhism 'the most different' from other major Western world faith traditions, namely that instead of an acceptance of certain pillars of ideology, the idea of detaching from the distracting energies of the world is what is important. An individual can do so in a monastery, or in the world, but in all facets of his or her life, a Buddhist must live in a spirit of a lack of attachment to the universe. Additionally, a 'perfect Buddhist' has a life "pervaded, with the thought of amity, all corners of the universe... pervaded, with the thought of compassion, all corners of the universe...pervaded, with the thought of gladness...equanimity" (Boeree, "The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom" 1999). This is not very different from the life of the ideal Christian as preached in the gospel, of the meek who shall inherit the earth, and the low who are made high.
It must also be noted that although Buddhism is sometimes viewed as a religion that abstains from all forms of veneration, this is not strictly the case in all instances. For example, in Mahayana Buddhism, the dominant Buddhist tradition in China, "all practicing Buddhists are apprenticing Bodhisattvas. Along the way, the various sects introduced a range of high level Bodhisattva figures, who represent different values to be sought, such as wisdom and compassion, and who may provide protection to those who pray to that particular Bodhisattva"("The History,…[continue]
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