Some time ago my attention was directed to a series of blog posts from the Social Pathologist titled ‘Christian Buddhism’, in which the author compared Christianity and Buddhism while discussing modern-day Christianity. Drawing material from renowned Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton, the author writes a scathing critique of modern Christianity.
Unfortunately, he built his arguments on gross misunderstandings of Buddhism, undermining his arguments.
To be clear, the intent of the author’s posts was to identify problems with modern-day Christianity and its practices, drawing parallels with Buddhism to illustrate his points. I’m not contending with those arguments. I am, however, going to point out the errors in his description of Buddhism, as they represent the most common misconceptions people have about the faith.
What is Buddhism?
Before we can begin to approach the concept of ‘Christian Buddhism’, we must first understand both Christianity and Buddhism. I trust that the Social Pathologist, a Catholic, and G. K. Chesterton, can do a much better job at describing Christianity than myself. Unfortunately, their description of Buddhism is based on major misconceptions.
In his introductory post on Christian Buddhism, the Social Pathologist writes:
Chesterton savaged this philosophy [of Count Tolstoy], seeing it as a sort of Christian version of Buddhism but recognised that it had a strong tradition within Christianity which was kept in check by other forces. It was a tradition of self-negation and in many ways was hostile towards human pleasures, seeing them as an impediment toward religious enlightenment. Self-denial was the path to holiness, pleasure to sin. It was pacifistic, anti-assertive, anti-identitarian and anti-carnal.
It is a common perspective that Buddhism demands self-denial. Indeed, Buddhism demands mental and spiritual discipline from the practitioner, requiring him to refrain from thoughts and actions that may lead him astray. But the assertion that pleasure is an ‘impediment to human enlightenment’, and that self-denial is the ‘path to holiness’ and ‘pleasure to sin’ is an extreme misinterpretation of Buddhist doctrine.
In Buddhist teachings, Gautama Siddharta was moved by the suffering of the world, and sought to find a permanent end to suffering. He studied under Vedic teachers, but finding them wanting, turned to asceticism. For seven years, he practiced extreme self-denial, fasting and meditative discipline to the brink of death, but failed to gain enlightenment.
Finally, after meditating under a Bodhi tree and accepting milk and rice from Sujata, a passing milkmaid, he achieved enlightenment and described the Middle Way, a path that lay in between the extremes of hedonistic self-pleasure and asceticism.
We see here that self-denial through mortifying the flesh is not the way to Nirvana. The purpose of self-denial in Buddhist is to cultivate self-discipline, and overcome attachment to sensory pleasures. Rather than denying oneself of such sensations, the aim is to achieve a state of perfect serenity and ensure that such sensations have no hold over the practitioner.
It is not inherently wrong for a practitioner to experience pleasure. But he must be mindful not to over-indulge in it, or be obsessed by it, and thereby harm himself and/or those around him. This is done by cultivating awareness and self-reflection, to be aware of and to understand one’s intent from moment to moment.
As for the assertions of Buddhism being ‘pacifistic, anti-assertive, anti-identitarian ‘, I need only point to Thailand, Sri Lanka and Tibet, where Buddhism is an inherent part of the national identity and defended through bloody warfare against insurgents and invaders.
The Social Pathologist next quotes Chesterton, saying:
The Tolstoyan’s will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil
If this were a reference to the notion of karma, it rests on a fatal misunderstanding of the concept.
Karma, quite simply, is the law of cause and effect. The intentions and actions of an individual influence the future of that person and all other beings he has influenced. Like deeds are likely to lead to like effects. Thus, good actions and intentions create good karma, causing good outcomes for the actor, and the same can be said for bad actions and intentions. For example, an honourable person is likely to be believed and one who generally acts dishonourably is not.
Diving deeper into the concept, karma encompasses the actions and intentions of the actor’s body, speech and mind in the past and present, and according to the prevailing conditions, will manifest events that are favourable, neutral or unfavourable to a person.
Buddhism clearly does not see all special actions are evil. Making merit through virtuous deeds is a fundamental part of Buddhist ethics, and an important part in many Buddhist traditions. While Buddhist moral prescriptions generally describe actions that should be avoided, the main thrust of Buddhist ethics with regards to actions is that for a deed to be deemed as moral, it must lead to the happiness of all beings, or least all parties involved. Through generating merit and refraining from evil actions, the practitioner attains wisdom, inner peace, and spiritual and mental purity.
The Social Pathologist goes on to say:
What has emerged in the 20th Century is something akin to a Christian type of Buddhism which sees the fulfillment of mans desire precisely in the negation of self. Suffering is glorified while righteousness is given lip service. Mercy at the expense of justice. The distribution of wealth instead of the creation of it. Prayer is glorified to fight evil while actual action to fight it is condemned
I will leave the question of whether this properly describes modern Christianity to better commentators than myself. I will say that if this is meant to be a parallel to Buddhism, it falls short.
Suffering is not glorified in Buddhism. The purpose of Buddhism to achieve a final end to suffering. Suffering for its own sake is a subtle form of attachment, and must be overcome.
Righteousness isn’t given lip service either. The concept of karma alone requires practitioners to live an ethical life, lest they create even more suffering for themselves. Buddhism does warn against self-righteousness, in feeling superior to someone else, as it maintains the delusion of a separate ego.
In place of righteousness, Buddhism advocates deeds that engender the four bhrama vihara, or the Four Immeasurables: superior joy, or happiness not caused by the suffering of others; compassion, or love for beings suffering more than oneself; loving kindness, or love for beings suffering less than oneself; and equanimity, which engenders stability and calmness of the mind.
In acting in accordance with the Four Immeasurables, practitioners create an environment which decreases the suffering of beings. Buddhism sees negative emotions as the cause of acts that create suffering for others, like anger being caused by frustration. Thus, elimination of the cause of anger will cause a person to cease being angry, thereby ending their suffering and preventing them from harming others and themselves.
Mercy does not come at the expense of justice. The law of karma dictates that anyone who does wrong is already suffering, and will compound it further by drawing the suffering he is inflicting on others upon himself. In light of this, justice in Buddhism is centered not on punishment for its own sake, but on compassion and rehabilitation, to guide the wrongdoer back on the right path — for he has already invited untold suffering on himself, and the practitioner should engender compassion by freeing him from suffering. To seek mercy at the expense of justice is to indulge in dualistic thinking and open the way to ego entrapment.
Buddhism sees wealth as morally neutral. It notes that poverty leads to suffering and social ills, and there are Buddhas that have vowed to lift people out of poverty. There is no harm in creating and accumulating wealth, if it is done so ethically. Buddhism also sees the capacity to accumulate and retain wealth meaningfully as a fruition of karma of one’s past good deeds. Wealth is therefore simply a means to an end, that end being the end of suffering. Distributing wealth through charity is one method of doing this, but to do this one must first create wealth. Thus, prioritising distribution over creation of wealth or vice versa is erroneous thinking.
In that same vein, glorifying prayer to fight evil while condemning action is the product of dualistic thinking. Prayers do not generate the causes and conditions to end suffering; right action and intention does. This is why Buddhism advocates right action, not just endless recitals of prayers. In Buddhism, the object of prayer is to honour the Buddha, and to cultivate the compassion, wisdom and inner strength to do what is right — including liberating all beings from suffering. Further, in the Tibetan tradition, the veneration of the qualities of the Buddha and other deities reminds the practitioner that the qualities of these beings can be engendered in himself, leading to right actions.
What is Emptiness?
After spending a post on what Buddhism is not, in his next post the Social Pathologist looks to Chesterton to deliver an incisive insight into what Buddhism continues not to be.
But some at least of the disciples of the great Gautama [ED: Buddhists] interpret his ideal, so far as I can understand them, as one of absolute liberation from all desire or effort or anything that human beings commonly call hope.
The Social Pathologist comments:
The shorthand version of it is that Christianity believed in happiness with a personality; man was only truly happy when he was himself while Buddhism thought that he could only be happy when he wasn’t. However at a more deeper level Chesterton recognised that Buddhism and Manicheanism were very similar with their hatred of physical creation
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The goal of Buddhism is liberation for all beings. Not liberation from all sensations and emotions, but liberation from suffering.
On the surface it can appear that Buddhism disparages all emotions, including hope and joy and happiness, by achieving a state of perfect nothingness. This is incorrect. Buddhism teaches that attachment leads to suffering, and this includes attachment to emotions–negative and positive. The goal is not to feel nothing, but to find peace and equanimity.
The ideal is to discipline your mind and heart so that you can choose how to react to situations as you arise, and the intensity of emotion you feel. If, for example, someone cuts off a driver in traffic, an ordinary person would naturally feel angry. A disciplined practitioner, on the other hand, can recognise the emotion of anger arising. Through mental practices, he can mitigate or release the anger before it manifests — not choke it down or suppress it, but to expunge it entirely — and thus be free from bearing the emotional burden of obsessing over the event for hours on end, and return to a state of serenity.
In the same vein, a person would naturally feel happy when being praised. A person overly-attached to seeking happiness will thus go out of his way to please everyone around him, becoming a doormat or a people-pleaser. A disciplined practitioner simply is aware of the sensation of pleasure arising and passing away, without engaging with it or pushing it aside. This keeps him psychologically and emotionally healthy. He remains in awareness, his perceptions untainted by emotions, and continues to act appropriately in accordance to reality.
Concerning ‘hatred of physical creation’, it is again a misinterpretation of Buddhist teachings. Buddhism does not teach that the world is not real or that it should be hated, only that it is impermanent.
The Diamond Sutra states:
So you should view this fleeting world —
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream
These four lines hold that the world is impermanent and illusory. This is not to say that it is not real, but it is in constant flux, and that things are not what they appear to be. Practitioners should strive to see the true essence of things, not grasp at clouds and phantoms.
Consider a cone of ice cream left outdoors on a hot summer’s day. It begins its existence perfectly formed, desired for its coolness and sweetness. But in hours the ice cream melts into a puddle, becoming an object of disgust.
In this same vein, all things and people will change over time. Thus, it would be futile to develop emotional attachment to an object, to be obsessed with the object, to eventually lose interest in or develop an aversion for any object.
Buddhism does not teach ‘hatred for physical creation’, only that it is pointless to attach emotional significance to created objects, for such objects will inevitably change or pass away.
The idea that a religious doctrine that does not teach love for physical creation must necessarily mean it teaches hatred for physical creation is a byproduct of dualistic thinking. It is this same dualistic thinking that fatally undermines Chesterton’s and The Social Pathologist’s critiques of Buddhism.
Another is that all things recur; another, which is said to be Buddhist and is certainly Oriental, is the idea that what is the matter with us is our creation, in the sense of our colored differentiation and personality, and that nothing will be well till we are again melted into one unity.
The Social Pathologist continues:
The other point that I’m trying to get across here is that what separates Christian Asceticism form Buddhism is a conscious theological affirmation of the goodness of creation; otherwise they’re very much alike in practice…
The essential idea of Christian Buddhism is union with Christ through the negation of self…
It is accurate to say that Buddhism does not profess a ‘conscious theological affirmation of the goodness of creation’. Christianity holds that God made the world and that the beauty of the world reflects the perfect nature of God. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, and as such it does not have a similar philosophy. Instead, it posits that all beings have minds that have incarnated again and again as one type of being or another, including animals, insects and humans, over countless lifetimes. Buddhism simply offers a way out of the cycle of rebirth; there is no need for ‘conscious theological affirmation of goodness of creation’.
To escape the cycle of rebirth, Buddhism teaches practitioners how to achieve nirvana. Unfortunately, both Chesterton and the Social Pathologist have an inaccurate perception of the concept of nirvana. Chiefly, ‘negation of self’ and ‘melted into one unity’ rests on the fatal assumption that recognizing the emptiness of existence must necessarily lead to the annihilation of the self.
Various Buddhist sects hold that, in addition to Shakyamuni Buddha, there exist many other Buddhas. These include Bhaiṣajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha who cures illnesses and suffering through his teachings; Amitābha, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, who helps all beings who reach his Pure Land to attain enlightenment; Maitreya, the prophesized successor of Shakyamuni Buddha; and many more.
These Buddhas have, one and all, attained enlightenment. If they have all ‘melted into one unity’ and attained perfect ‘negation of self’, why, then, do they specialize in different roles, assume unique identities, and have different methods of worship?
Nirvana is not a state of non-existence. Nirvana is not the end of individual identity. Nirvana is a state of mind. I will revisit this topic later in the essay.
What is Desire?
Moving on to Part III, the Social Pathologist discusses the ‘Fleshly appetites’:
A platonic interpretation of Christianity leads to a tendency to disparage the body at the expense of the spirit, and taken to its logical conclusions arrives at a position very similar to Buddhism, with its negative view of the “fleshy” appetites in all of their various forms.
Buddhism views attachment to sensual desire as a hindrance to achieving enlightenment, for it brings suffering. On first glance it agrees with the Social Pathologist. But let’s look deeper. The Kama Sutta from the Sutta Nipāta, part of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, states:
If one, longing for sensual pleasure,
achieves it, yes,
he’s enraptured at heart.
The mortal gets what he wants.
But if for that person
— longing, desiring —
the pleasures diminish,
as if shot with an arrow.
Whoever avoids sensual desires
— as he would, with his foot,
the head of a snake —
goes beyond, mindful,
this attachment in the world.
The cause of suffering is attachment to sensual desire, and not the sensation itself. Buddhism teaches its believers to refrain from sensual desire to prevent the formation of attachment, and thus prevent suffering once the pleasant sensations inevitably fades.
Yogis who follow Tibetan Buddhism maintain the practice of sexual yoga as a means of achieving Buddhahood in a single lifetime. It is a practice reserved only for the most elite of practitioners, those who have directly realized emptiness and have cultivated compassion. With such training and a mindset, a practitioner can avoid creating the mental attachments that cause suffering while realizing the full benefits of the practice.
At a less extreme level, a key practice of Zen Buddhism is complete mindfulness in action. This extends to eating and drinking. It is impossible to escape sensations of pleasure in this practice, as the human body is hardwired to sense pleasure when nourishing and hydrating itself. However, one is also mindful of the moment when the pleasure fades and equilibrium returns; by staying completely present, the sense of calmness is imprinted and retained, preventing the creation of attachment.
From these practices, we see that sensory pleasure is not itself wrong, but the attachments that lead to suffering should be severed and prevented from arising.
I will, however, say that this is a very fine distinction to make. The usual recommendation thus is to reforge yourself so that you are neither attached to nor desire sensual pleasure — which prevents these attachments and therefore suffering from arising.
What is Nirvana?
The fourth post in the series has the Social Pathologist framing Nirvana as the loss of personality and individuality.
Chesterton recognised that Buddhism was the total opposite of this. In Buddhist metaphysics, Nirvana is achieved when the self is “let go” and the individual is absorbed into the universe. i.e perfection is achieved through the loss of personality and identity
Chesterton is quoted as saying:
This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man…
The world-soul of the Theosophists asks man to love it only in order that man may throw himself into it…
The oriental deity is like a giant who should have lost his leg or hand and be always seeking to find it…
All those vague theosophical minds for whom the universe is an immense melting-pot are exactly the minds which shrink instinctively from that earthquake saying of our Gospels, which declare that the Son of God came not with peace but with a sundering sword…
The assertion that ‘perfection is achieved through the loss of personality and identity’ is, once again, founded on a misunderstanding of Buddhism. I believe this is an artifact of dualistic thinking, which pits good against evil, the individual against the collective. To achieve a proper understanding of Buddhism, the scholar must cultivate non-dualistic thinking. In other words, this is not a question of individual or Nirvana, but individual and Nirvana.
Putting it simply: why must Enlightenment necessarily lead to the annihilation of the self?
A Buddha achieves Nirvana by cultivating supreme compassion and realizing emptiness. The latter does not literally mean being emptied of substance and existence; it means comprehending the interconnectedness and the transience of all things. it is not the dissolution of the individual into nothingness, rather the recognition that all beings, including the individual practitioner, are part of an intricately interconnected web that extends to the furthest reaches of the universe.
Thus to address Chesterton’s points:
- Personality is not the fall of man, rather the perception that an individual ego is separate and independent from all other things.
- Buddhism does not teach believers to love the world so that they can be absorbed into it, rather that they see reality exactly as it is and to cultivate compassion to help all beings attain liberation from suffering.
- There is no overarching ‘oriental deity’ in Buddhism that serves a similar role to the Christian God. The Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are beings who have achieved a state of mind that all who follow in their path wish to achieve.
- Buddhism does not hold that perfection lies in dissolving into a great undifferentiated soup, but in seeing the interdependence of things.
Enlightenment is manifestly not the annihilation of the individual. It is simply the individual awakening to full awareness of everything there is exactly as they are, without preconceived notions or emotional filters.
What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?
It seems to me that many modern Western misconceptions of Buddhism stem from translation issues. It may be poetic to translate ‘Śūnyatā’ as ’emptiness’, for instance, but the word ’emptiness’ in English holds radically different connotations from the intent of the original term. If one takes these translated terms at face value, without delving deeper into the source material, it is only human to reach the conclusion that Buddhism is a religion of nihilism.
Yet because of the complexity of Buddhist doctrine, the dedicated scholar must delve deeply into the core teachings and unearth the truth. To begin to comprehend the teachings, one must embark on a radical shift in thinking, to see the micro and the macro as one, to move away from dualism and embrace non-dualism, to see reality not as an agglomeration of individual separate objects but as a united whole.
What is Buddhism? It is, at its heart, the cultivation of compassion, insight and wisdom; a way of living deeply and fully in the present; and the elimination of all delusions, attachments and mental fetters.
It is a religion that is not a religion.
If you want to see what Buddhism looks like when it meets the street, as practiced by a supercop turned superhero, check out my novel HOLLOW CITY!
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(All images in this essay from Pixabay)