Is Buddhism Not a Religion?

I have often heard it said that Buddhism is not a religion. That it is more of a philosophy or a spiritual method of practice.

Merriam-Webster defines “religion” as:

  • “the service and worship of God or the supernatural;
  • commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance;
  • a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”

Buddhism is very diverse, so the answer to this may differ between the various branches of Buddhism. In this article, we will look at Tibetan (Vajrayana) as one major branch and examine the question of whether it is a religion. For example, an Western ethnic lay practitioner would perform some or all of the following daily practices:

  • You rise early, between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., to begin your day with meditation.
  • You walk around (circumambulate) your house, which holds a sacred shrine containing statues, scrolls, and other ritual objects.
  • As you walk, you finger your mala (Buddhist rosary) while chanting a sacred mantra such as Om mani padme hum (the famous mantra of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion) or the longer mantra of Vajrasattva, the bodhisattva of clarity and purification.
  • After cleaning your shrine, you offer 108 prostrations . . . as an expression of your devotion to and refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, dharma, and sangha). [Start on your hands and knees, then lie completely flat on your stomach, while lying flat raise your hands upwards as if praying, then push up from the ground and repeat.]
  • You engage in a particular practice your teacher has given you, often a visualization of a particular deity accompanied by chanting, prayer, and prostrations.
  • As you go about your day, you constantly chant Om mani padme hum, either aloud or silently to yourself, while cultivating the qualities of compassion and loving-kindness for all beings.
  • You spend an hour or two in the evening studying certain special teachings recommended by your teacher.
  • Before you go to sleep, you make offerings of incense and candles at your altar, meditate, do additional prostrations, and recite long-life prayers for your teacher and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.[1]

Some elements of Buddhism do not fulfill the strict definition of religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” However, if you examine Tibetan Buddhism, it has a personal and institutionalized system of beliefs and practices involving deities. In particular, the rituals listed above of meditation, circumambulation, chanting, prostrations, prayer, study, and offerings bear out the definition of religion.

Empowerment

The gateway to the Vajrayana is what is know as “empowerment.” As empowerment is generally a very elaborate ceremony wherein a highly respected lama will confer the blessings of a particular Buddhist deity, such as, for example, Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion. During an empowerment ceremony, the lama plants a “seed” in the student’s mind that will eventually ripen in the student, through practice and devotion, manifesting the enlightened qualities of that deity. An empowerment marks a student’s formal entrance into the tantric path.[2]

Examining some elements of the Tibetan empowerment ceremonies, also called initiations, we find that these initiations involve deities or yidam, of which there are thousands, each with their own empowerment ceremony. The ceremony is conducted by a lama, who bestows the empowerment.[3]

An Empowerment is an authorization to do the various stages of meditation associated with a particular deity. . . .[4]

Unless you first obtain the ripening empowerments, you are not authorized to hear even a single verse of the tantras, statements and instructions. Unauthorized people who engage in expounding on and listening to the tantras will not only fail to receive blessings; they will create immense demerit from divulging the secrecy of these teachings.[5]

The empowerment ceremony is considered the way to directly transmit the truth of Buddhism from the lama to the lay practitioner.[6] Before the ceremony, the lay person prepares by washing and putting on clean clothes.[7] He or she needs to be prepared the prostrate themselves before the lama.[8] Saffron water or liquor is given to seal the commitments made.

The samaya vows . . . are given with some saffron water or alcoholic liquor to seal the commitments, along with a stern warning about what may happen to those who break these commitments. At this point, we have reached the point of no return and have committed ourselves to being tantric practitioners.[9]

Three main elements of the empowerments involve purifying the body, speech and mind, however, during purifying the body, the lay person is authorized to visualize themselves as a deity.

If there are three main empowerments, the first is the body empowerment. This purifies the defilements of body, such as illness, and authorizes the disciple to visualize herself a deity. The speech empowerment purifies defilements of speech and breath and allows the student to recite the deity’s mantra. The empowerment of mind purifies the mind and permits the students to dissolve the visualization and rest their minds in buddha-nature.[10]

During the ceremony, vows are made, however, the sheer number of vows can make them impossible to keep.

There are . . . other Smaya vows that are implicit in the empowerment even though they will probably not be mentioned during the ceremony. Nonetheless, it is your responsibility to find out what they are and to try to keep them as well as you can. There are thousands and thousands of these vows, some clearly more important than others and many nearly impossible to keep. . . . Find out which ones he [the lama] feels are the crucial ones, how to keep them, and what to do if they are broken.[11]

In view of the practices borne out in the empowerment ceremony, the Tibetan (Vajrayana) form of Buddhism fulfills the definition of a religion.


[1] Jonathan Landaw and Stephan Bodian, Buddhism for Dummies, (Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2003), 172.

[2] Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: notes from a practitioner’s journey, (Boulder: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 29.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Ibid, 31.

[5] Ibid., 31. Quoted from Tsele Rinpoche, Empowerment, (Kathmandu: Rangjung Yeshue Publications, 1994), 15.

[6] Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: notes from a practitioner’s journey, (Boulder: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 31.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., 37.

Violence in Thailand and Burma

Particularly in the West, Buddhism is considered a calm, almost passive religion. Its adherents are known for spending long periods of time meditating. But recent headlines regarding activities in Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) would be contrary to that notion.

Ashin Wirathu is a 46-year-old Buddhist monk and spiritual leader in Burma. He has been accused of hate speech, and is active on YouTube and other social media forums. Due to his vitriolic speeches against the Rohingya Muslims, he was sentenced in 2003 to 25 years in prison, but was released in 2010.[i] The July 1, 2013 edition of Time magazine featured Wirathu’s face on the cover, with the cover article’s title, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”[ii]

On May 4, 2015, the Associated Press reported the arrest of three Thai officials and a citizen of Burma (Mayanmar) after the finding 26 graves on the southern border of Thailand near Malaysia.[iii]

By May 6, CNN reported that number had grown to 30 to 40 graves of people believed to have been held by human traffickers. Southern Thailand is known as a “hot-spot for human trafficking.” Last year, the U.S. State Department reported Thailand as a Tier 3, the lowest ranking, in its “Trafficking in Persons” report. The remains are thought to be of Rohingya Muslims, fleeing from the ethnic violence in Buddhist-majority Burma. They are smuggled and/or captured by human traffickers and held for ransom. If they are unable to pay, they are held until they die from starvation or disease.[iv]

During the police raid, one lone survivor was found. He was left behind, because he could not walk. During his nine month captivity, he was moved between seven different camps. He estimated that 200 people were being held. He told police that the camp they found is not the only one with graves. A Rohingya activist, Abdul Kalam, estimates that dozens of camps have been set up, and that this raid has revealed “just the tip of the iceberg.” [v]

Most Americans see Buddhists as non-violent. Most Americans view Thailand as idyllic and credit that to Buddhism. The reality is that both Thailand and Burma are deeply troubled countries, and Buddhists are not immune to committing violence.


[i] “Ashin Wirathu,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashin_Wirathu, retrieved on June 11, 2015.

[ii] “Ashin Wirathu: Myanmar and its vitriolic monk,” BBC.com, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30930997, retrieved on June 11, 2015. See http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2146000,00.html for the text of the Time magazine article, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

[iii] “Thailand arrests 4, vows crackdown on human traffickers,” DailyMail.co.uk, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3067019/Thailand-arrests-3-vows-crackdown-human-traffickers.html, retrieved on June 11, 2015.

[iv] “At least 30 graves found in southern Thailand, and a lone survivor,” CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/02/asia/thailand-mass-graves/, retrieved June 11, 2015.

[v] “Thailand arrests 4, vows crackdown on human traffickers,” DailyMail.co.uk, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3067019/Thailand-arrests-3-vows-crackdown-human-traffickers.html, retrieved on June 11, 2015.

 

Making Sense of the Cross

To most Asians, the cross does not make sense. If anything, its appeal is very negative. Why glorify the brutal death of Jesus?

If Jesus were just a great teacher, his crucifixion would just be another tragic event in history. But it was far more than that, because he was far more than a great teacher. God chose to become a man and come humbly to earth in an effort to reconcile to himself as many of mankind as would believe in him and follow him. So Jesus voluntarily submitted himself to be crucified to pay the penalty of death for the rebelliousness of the human race.

To better appreciate all this let’s take a look at an analogy from what could have been part of American history.

Suppose we had lost the Revolutionary War. All the signers of the Declaration of Independence were captured, bound in chains and deported to England for trial, along with hundreds of other POWs.

King George III of England had issued a special decree during the uproar in the American colonies before the war began. Many public leaders advocated not paying taxes to the British government, inciting armed rebellion against the Crown. The King’s decree bluntly declared that the minimum penalty for such treason was hanging.

As the day for the trial of the revolutionary leaders and the American POWs approached, King George was quite grieved. He knew well that many of the signers were great men. They were able leaders of their respective colonies, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and John Hancock. He could not bear to hang all of them, as well as hundreds of other POWs.

The King sought a reduced penalty as an alternative—20 years hard labor in prison. However, Parliament demanded justice. They all must be executed. Many in Parliament felt the King didn’t have the power to reduce the sentences. Yet, since no one had disputed his power to issue the original decree of high treason, he arguably had the power to modify his own decree.

The king was very sorrowful. If he had allowed the American colonies to have representatives in Parliament, war would have been avoided. Out of his great remorse, he made a radical proposal. He himself would be hung instead of the leaders of the revolution. The only way this substitution could be seen as adequate was that George was King and ultimate Judge of the British Empire. So, Parliament accepted the King’s proposal. The King was hung. All 700 of the American captives were released and returned to America and the American colonies were given representation in Parliament.

Why did Jesus volunteer to be executed?

Jesus volunteered to suffer the death penalty to release people from guilt for their rebellion against God. His sacrifice was sufficient because He was God and ultimate Judge of all human beings. So, the divinity of Jesus was essential for him to be an acceptable substitute for all of mankind for the death penalty that we all face. To be spared of their guilt, however, each person must willingly accept his astonishing act of mercy and grace.

In the days of Noah, God deeply regretted creating mankind.

Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.[1]

Jesus, being one with God, took part in this sorrow. He also wept over Jerusalem.[2] The context makes it clear that Jesus wept because Jerusalem had again rejected one of God’s prophets (himself) and sought his death. Yet he may also have wept because he felt responsible for participating in creating the human race and granting it free will, making possible the epidemic of spiritual rebellion and wickedness among all human beings. So his volunteering to be sacrificed may well have been due partly to his sorrow over this.

Is the death penalty unfair?

Isn’t God’s insistence on the death penalty unjust and excessive? Let’s look at the context of this decree. God had created the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve to live in. It was truly paradise, yet there was one condition. Neither of them were to eat of the fruit of the tree of life in the middle of the garden. They chose to disobey and God gave this decree to Adam:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.[3]

Later, in the book of Ezekiel, God (and Jesus) gave this decree: “Behold, all souls are Mine…The soul who sins will die.”[4]

This may seem unfair unless we consider that each human life is a gift from God, not a right. Each individual life is a miracle, not a routine happening. As Job said,

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.[5]

What about the Buddha?

Though Buddha possessed great wisdom and legends of supernatural powers, he bowed dutifully to karma as the undisputed king of the universe. He did not have the power to alter the operation of karma. Yet Jesus has that power, and on the basis of his divine person and authority, he can free an individual from the guilt of all their past wrongdoings.


[1] Genesis 6:5-8 (NKJV).

[2] Luke 19:41.

[3] Genesis 3:17-19 (NKJV).

[4] Ezekiel 18:4 (NASB).

[5] Job 1:21 (NKJV).

Steve Jobs & Buddhism

Steve Jobs is known around the world as the visionary co-founder of Apple, Inc. He was instrumental in the remarkable success of Apple and its products including the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad, as well as making his mark in the film industry as the CEO and majority stockholder of Pixar, the highly successful animated film company known for the Toy Story movies, A Bug’s Life, Monster’s, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up. Pixar was later purchased by The Walt Disney Company, where Jobs served on the Board of Directors.[1] The subject of numerous books, documentaries, films and even a play, he will also be the subject of an independent film jOBS starring Ashton Kutcher.[2] The film premiered at the Sundance Festival on January 25, 2013 and will open in theaters on April 19, 2013.[3]

During his early career he traveled to India and spent seven months there. After returning to the U.S., he experimented with LSD and became a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.[4] But, as blogger Steve Silberman asks, “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?”[5] In discussing the book Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography, Silberman notes,

Isaacson does a fine job of showing how Jobs’ engagement with Buddhism was more than just a lotus-scented footnote to a brilliant Silicon Valley career. As a young seeker in the ’70s, Jobs didn’t just dabble in Zen, appropriating its elliptical aesthetic as a kind of exotic cologne. He turns out to have been a serious, diligent practitioner who undertook lengthy meditation retreats at Tassajara — the first Zen monastery in America, located at the end of a twisting dirt road in the mountains above Carmel — spending weeks on end “facing the wall,” as Zen students say, to observe the activity of his own mind.

Silberman also discusses books that influenced Jobs, such as Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungap Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which was compiled from lectures by Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, and the influence that his teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa had in his life. Silberman believes that Job’s gutsy showmanship may have been inspired by stories about legendary Zen masters.

I suspect that Jobs’ chutzpah as the Valley’s most dramatic and effective showman was inspired, at least in part, by the mythical Zen rogues who drank sake, caroused with whores, shunned temples, mocked hollow rituals, sat zazen in caves, and turn out to be the only ones worthy of inheriting the old master’s robe and bowl by the end of the story. Zen flourishes in irreverence, subversion, inscrutability, and self-mockery — all words that describe Jobs’ style but the last.[6]

While many of Job’s attributes as an inventor and entrepreneur may have by influenced by his Buddhist beliefs, he lacked the basic tenet of treating others with respect and lovingkindness.

Isaacson is admirably frank about the core tenet of Buddhism that Jobs seems to have bypassed: the importance of treating everyone around you, even perceived enemies, with basic respect and lovingkindness. It’s tempting now to cast Jobs’ tantrums, casual brutality, and constant berating of “sh–heads” [my edit] as the brave refusal to compromise his ideal of perfection — even as a kind of tough love that inspired his employees to transcend their own limitations. But a more skillful practitioner would have tried to find ways to bring out the genius in his employees without humiliating them — and certainly would have found ways of manufacturing products that didn’t cause so much suffering for impoverished workers in other countries.[7] The moment in Isaacson’s book when Jobs tells the Mobile Me team after the project’s disastrous début, “You should hate each other for having let each other down,” shows that even near the end of his life, Jobs had more to learn from his teachers.

NBCNews reports that ten employees of Foxconn, a Taipei-based manufacturer for Apple, Hewlett Packard and Dell, have committed suicide. It is believed to be due to working conditions: no conversation on the production line permitted, only ten-minute bathroom breaks every two hours permitted, and that workers are being yelled at.[8]

So what type of Buddhist was Steve Jobs? It would be safe to say he was at least in some important ways a hypocrite. While he seemed to embrace Buddhist ideas that fostered his creativity and success, he side-stepped a very basic tenet of Buddhism, respect and kindness toward all. We see that some Buddhists are hypocrites, just as are some Christians. Actually, if we are honest about it, human nature is such that we may all be hypocrites, especially if we include the wayward nature of our thoughts and feelings. Both Buddhism and Christianity clearly teach that what we think and feel are virtually as important as our outward actions. So, even if our outward behavior is above reproach, the occasionally serious, wayward content of our minds and hearts could cause us to fall short.


[1] “Steve Jobs,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jobs, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[2] “Steve Jobs: Portrayals and coverage in books, film, and theater,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jobs#Portrayals_and_coverage_in_books.2C_film.2C_and_theater, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[3] “Jobs (film),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jobs_(film), retrieved February 25, 2013.

[4] “Steve Jobs: Early Career,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jobs#Early_career, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[5] Steve Silberman, “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?” http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2011/10/28/what-kind-of-buddhist-was-steve-jobs-really/, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stephanie Wong, John Liu and Time Culpan, “Why Apple is Nervous About Foxconn,” NBCNews.com, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/37510167/ns/business-us_business/t/why-apple-nervous-about-foxconn/, retrieved February 25, 2013.

[8] Ibid.

Reviews: Becoming Enlightened and Jesus & Buddha: The Parallel Sayings

lamaBecoming Enlightened

Becoming Enlightened is a practical introduction to and handbook for anyone wanting an understanding of the practices and beliefs of Buddhism.

The information in the book is presented in prose, and twice again in “contemplations” or abbreviated lists itemizing the information. The first of these lists appears in the chapter initially presenting the information, and then all the contemplations are repeated again in a single chapter at the end of the book for quick reference.

Buddhist practices emphasize selflessness, altruism, kindness, tolerance, and compassion. Topics regarding karma, death and reincarnation, the impermanence of life, being a positive force for change, and developing wisdom are discussed.

Speaking of Buddha, the Dalai Lama states,

People the world over, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or not, are aware that there was someone called Gautama Buddha, praised for his profound and unique presentation on the nature of persons and objects and for his related teaching of the altruistic intention to become enlightened, in which others are cherished more than oneself. (page 216)

This accessible and matter-of-fact approach of presenting the steps for advancing toward enlightenment in every area of life is designed to assist the reader with making the practical day-to-day changes. For the non-Buddhist, it is an illuminating look into the philosophical underpinnings and practices of Buddhism.

It was written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D., who was his translator for ten years.

borgJesus & Buddha: The Parallel Sayings

Editor Marcus Borg set out to list parallels between Jesus and Buddha’s teachings and lives, by demonstrating parallels between their sayings and in the events surrounding their lives. He outlines parallels in numerous areas of their teachings and life stories, such as compassion, wisdom, materialism, inner life, and temptation, to name just a few.

 

The primary purpose of the parallels collected in this volume is not to make a scholarly case for similarity. We would need to include many more, as well as the debate whether and to what degree the dissimilarities count against similarity. Rather, the purpose of this collection is to provide opportunity for reflection and meditation. . . .

And so I invite you to ponder the parallels between these two enlightened teachers of an enlightenment wisdom. The path of which they both speak is a path of liberation from our anxious grasping, resurrection into a new way of being, and transformation into the compassionate life. (Editor’s Preface, page 11)

However, we take exception to his conclusions on the basis of three points:

  1. While there are a few points of comparison, many of these may be attributed to being generally accepted truths. However, many of the so-called parallels are weak at best.
  2. The author’s assumptions are deeply flawed in that he presents the parallels as though the texts he is quoting from have equal veracity. He fails to note that the New Testament authors were disciples of Jesus and eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection, while the sayings attributed to Buddha and the writings about Buddha were not put in written form until centuries after he lived, and many of the events attributed to Buddha as miraculous and which appear to be parallel to Jesus’ life are known to be myths that developed over the centuries and were not documented facts about his life at all.
  3. Rather than Buddha being an influence on Jesus, the author fails to observe that Solomon may have been an influence on Buddha, since Buddha would have had access to Solomon’s writings as a Prince of northern India. This premise is explored in R. E. Sherman’s book, Buddha and Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?

The editor offers this book as a volume for meditation, but the basic premise is so flawed as to nullify the value of this exercise.

Reviews: Sharing Your Faith with a Buddhist and Asia’s Religions

Sharing Your Faith with a Buddhist

thirumalai
Sharing Your Faith with a Buddhist contains an extensive description of the beginnings of Buddhism, and of the assorted forms of Buddhism and their distinctive variations by country, including very practical and appropriate approaches to take for sharing Christ with adherents to each major type of Buddhism.

Madasamy Thirumalai describes the teachings of Buddha as a “social program,” which is “geared more toward individuals than toward society.” (page 12)  While Christ offers us eternal life, “Gautama Buddha’s way focuses on extinction.” (page13)

Nirvana, appearing at the end of karma, is a condition of total freedom—total annihilation of self-beyond which there is no future birth. It is the total extinction of all desire and a final, complete release from suffering, including no consciousness (there is total peace, but no consciousness of peace). This is the goal of human beings—to have no existence. (page 29-30)

While Buddha’s individualism appeals to Westerners, Thirumalai compares the intellectualism and aloofness of Buddha to Jesus being actively involved with people and a servant to others. (38, 49-50)

The ministry of Jesus was, is, and will ever be for those who are lacking in spirit and body. Gautama Buddha represents an elaborate philosophical superiority, whereas Jesus represents the selfless servant-hood that focuses on the poor, the needy, and the dregs of society. This does not mean Gautama Buddha was haughty or boastful about his caste or his socioeconomic background or his spiritual attainment. It does mean his dominant feature was intellectualism, not service to others. (page 50)

He further contrasts “between the Buddhist insistence upon high attainments and the Christian demand for simple faith,” and presents Christianity as “message of hope and comfort rather than [the] despair and fatalism” of Buddhism. (page 61)

Additional topics covered are Idols, Relics, Animism, Pantheism, Polytheism, Magic, Divination, and Spirit Possession.

Madasamy Thirumalai is a professor of world religions and the academic dean at Bethany College of Missions in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has been a believer in Jesus for over 20 years, and he writes with knowledge and an intimate understanding of Buddhism, because he grew up in India and earned his Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Calcutta, and he taught in universities in India.

 

chang

 

Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism

Like a man who has been rescued from the desert and tasted his first glass of water, Lit-Sen Chang writes of six different Asian religions: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism and Islam, with relationship to Christianity. Two chapters are devoted to each religion. The first puts forth an understanding of the religion describing the basic tenets, historical texts it is based on, and its influence on the world. This is done with an eye to comparison and contrasts with Christianity. The second chapter critiques the faults of each religion and ultimately how they pale in light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, His sacrifice for the sins of mankind, and the hope that brings.

As a result, the study of pagan religions has too long been in the hands of non-evangelical or secular scholars who have stressed the similarities between Christianity and the non-Christian religious rather than emphasizing the supreme uniqueness of the Christian faith. (page XXXV)

Indeed, faced with Christ’s resurrection, all religious philosophers should give up all their disputing and vain imaginations. (page 26)

Throughout the book, he demonstrates that all of these Asian religions are paganism and states, “the chief characteristic of paganism is auto-soterism” (page 243) that is the effort of self-saving (versus the mercy and saving grace of God through Christ).

Christianity, unlike other natural ethnic religions, is not a set of philosophical systems or ethical teachings: but is “the way of life,” . . . (page 265)

Born in China and reared in a family rich in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, he writes not as one who has studied these religions, but as one who has lived and been completely immersed in them. Intent on improving the life of people in China by promoting the culture and religion of his people, he became a lawyer and a university professor, teaching in numerous universities. During the war against Japan (1937-45), he became a political leader, and eventually a key adviser to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, advising him on matters related to the war and national reconstruction. In 1949, he was invited to lecture at a leading university in India on Buddhism. The following year, he underwent a conversion of faith, and committed his life to proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Serving in various capacities in other educational institutions, he later attended Gordon Divinity School, in the United States, and received a Bachelor of Divinity (1959). He spent the remaining years of his life writing of the Christian faith.

Heaven and Nirvana

Are heaven and nirvana the same, or at least similar? In this post we look closely at this question. First, there are a number of ways that heaven, as it is described in the Bible, is similar to the nirvana that the Buddha described:

  • In each there is no suffering or death.
  • Both heaven and nirvana are luminous throughout.
  • Those who attain either transcendent state do so forever. There is perfect peace of mind. Upon approaching its entry there is a feeling of relief from a prior state of bondage.
  • Sadly, regarding both, many people exist outside of these permanent states of bliss.

STRIKING DIFFERENCES

Yet, there are very striking differences.[1]  Nirvana is purely a mental state, with no physical existence. In contrast, heaven as described in the Bible is a physical place as well as a mental and spiritual reality.

To enter heaven, one must leave the earth. In contrast, nirvana, as a state of mind, can be attained while still living on earth. The Buddha was in such a state during the 45 years after his enlightenment until his death at age 80.

In Buddhism, it is not proper to speculate on one’s status in nirvana. On the other hand, Christians are exhorted to “set your mind on things above.”[2]

Nirvana is outside of all conceivable experience. In contrast, the Bible provides many concrete, down-to-earth details about heaven. We are, however, informed that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”[3]

Those who attain nirvana are said to attain a state of omniscience. There is no evidence in the Bible that people in heaven attain that level of knowledge. ­­

There is no mention of being in the presence of God or of other people while in nirvana. In contrast, God dwells physically with the inhabitants of heaven, who can see the face of God. We are also told that the inhabitants of heaven are the “bride of Christ,”[4] implying close, frequent interaction.

Another major contrast is that the number of people who have reached nirvana may well be just a few hundred. The distinct impression the Bible makes regarding the number of inhabitants of heaven is that it is on the order of tens if not hundreds of millions.[5]

Going back to the first major difference, while nirvana does not exist physically, the Bible provides many detailed descriptions of the physical characteristics of heaven. It is a city that is 1,500 miles wide, 1,500 miles deep and 1,500 miles high.[6] This city has 12 gates, with three on each side,[7] like the current Jerusalem. In it fountains of the water of life are given freely to all who thirst.[8] There is no sun or moon, yet there is no light, because the glory of God illuminates everything.[9] Finally, it has streets of gold and gates of jewels.[10]

How far is 1,500 miles? That is about the distance from Seattle to Des Moines, or from Denver to Washington DC, or from LA to Kansas City, KS, or from London to Athens. Such a vast cube would contain 3,375,000,000 cubic miles. So, if every person alive today were to go to heaven, each would have about half a cubic mile of space to occupy. That is not to say that everyone in heaven would be that spread out, but rather that there would plenty of room for national parks and other natural wonders.

Given all the above differences, a reasonable conclusion is that heaven and nirvana are not the same.


[1] “Nirvana,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana, retrieved February 19, 2013. Information from this extensive article on Nirvana has been referenced throughout this blog.

[2] Colossians 3:2, NKJV.

[3] 1 Corinthians 2:9, NIV.

[4] Revelation 21:9.

[5] Revelation 21:24.

[6] Revelation 21:16.

[7] Revelation 21:12-13.

[8] Revelation 21:6.

[9] Revelation 21:23.

[10] Revelation 21:21.

Miracles of Buddha and Christ: Similarities

In my previous blog, I pointed out some of the differences between Buddha’s and Jesus’ miracles. In this blog, I will discuss some of the similarities. Buddha and Jesus are both known for miracles involving power over nature, over their own bodies, and the power of divine sight. In general, however, the miracles Buddha performed were not cited as benefiting anyone, or only a few people, particularly in comparison to similar miracles performed by Jesus (or Moses).

Power Over Nature

Power to Transform Water

The Buddha asked one of his disciples to get him some water, but when the disciple went to the well it was filled with grass and chaff. The Buddha asked him several times, and the answer was always that the water was not drinkable. Eventually the disciple went to the well one last time, and all the grass and chaff had been expelled by the Buddha, so the water was drinkable.[1]

Rather than making water drinkable, Jesus, while attending a wedding, turned water into wine, much to the relief of the wedding host who had run out of wine for his many guests.[2]

Dominion Over Water

The Buddha, when faced with a flood, commanded the flood waters to stand back, and he walked between them on dry ground.[3] No one was cited as being helped.

In contrast, many centuries before Buddha lived, Moses parted the Red Sea so that over two million Israelites could escape from Egypt and slavery under the Pharaoh.[4]

When the disciples were at sea with Jesus and a terrible storm hit, the disciples feared for their lives. Just by speaking Jesus calmed the storm.[5]

Buddha walked on water.[6] When Jesus walked on water, it was a faith-building exercise for Peter and the disciples.[7]

Power Over Their Bodies

Known as the Twin Miracle, Buddha transformed the top half of his body into flames and the lower half into streams of water. He alternated this from the top and bottom and left and right.[8] I could not find any reference to anyone being influenced by these miracles.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ transfiguration is described,

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.[9]

And in John’s vision in Revelation:

And in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.[10]

The Buddha passed through solid objects as if through space (intangibility). He rose and sank in the ground as if in the water. He walked through mountains, dove in and out of earth.[11] The Buddha was said to travel to other worlds, like the world of Brahma, with or without his body, and traveled to the heavens to school the gods and returned.[12]

After his resurrection, the Apostles were hiding in fear and gathered in a room with the doors shut. Jesus entered the sealed room by passing through the walls or a closed door.[13] To calm their fears, he twice said “Peace to you.” After being seen by a great number of people (approximately 500[14]), he blessed his disciples and ascended into heaven.[15]

Power of Divine Sight

The Buddha was said to have the gift of Divine seeing: telepathy, the ability to see past lives, and knowing a person’s past, their present thoughts, and future events. I was unable to find any references to Buddha’s exercise of these powers affecting or influencing anyone.[16]

When Jesus was talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, he knew her history, that she had had five husbands and was currently living with a man that was not her husband. The woman marveled at his knowledge of her life, and told many in her village. As a result, many people in her village became followers of Jesus.[17]

Documentation

Because the documentation for the Buddha’s miracles comes from manuscripts written 400-500 years after he lived (the Pali Canon was an oral tradition until it was committed to paper in 29 CE[18]), we may consider them as legends. In contrast, documentation for the miracles of Jesus were written down by people who knew him and they wrote about them during their lifetimes. In other words, they were eyewitness accounts.


[1] “The Clean Water.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha#The_clean_water, retrieved December 12, 2012.

[2] John 2:1-11

[3] “Power Over Nature.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha#Power_over_nature, retrieved December 12, 2012.

[4] Exodus 14:1-31.

[5] Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25.

[6] “Miraculous Powers,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha#Miraculous_Powers, retrieved December 24, 2012.

[7] Matthew 14:22-23, Mark 6:45-52, John 6:16-21.

[8] “Twin Miracle.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha#Twin_miracle, retrieved on December 12, 2012.

[9] Matthew 17:1-2 (NIV). Full passages on the transfiguration are found in Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-36.

[10] Revelation 1:13-16 (NKJV).

[11] “Miraculous Powers.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha#Miraculous_Powers, retrieved on December 12, 2012.

[12] “Miraculous Powers.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha#Miraculous_Powers, retrieved on December 12, 2012.

[13] John 20:19.

[14] 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

[15] Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:9-11

[16] “Other Miracles.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha#Other_miracles, retrieved on December 12, 2012.

[17] John 4:1-30.

[18] “Pali Canon,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C4%81li_Canon, retrieved on December 24, 2012.

Miracles of Buddha and Christ: Differences

When looking at the miracles of Buddha and Christ, distinct areas of difference come to light.

In the Digha Nikaya: The Long Discourses are descriptions of miracles that Buddha performed. He defined three types of miracles,

Kevatta, there are these three miracles that I have declared, having directly known and realized them for myself. Which three? The miracle of psychic power, the miracle of telepathy, and the miracle of instruction.[1]

Further in the discourse he expressed his abhorrence for miracles,

Seeing this drawback to the miracle of psychic power, Kevatta, I feel horrified, humiliated, and disgusted with the miracle of psychic power.[2]

And he repeated the same thing about the miracle of telepathy. The only miracle of value that he found was the ability to direct a student in instruction. However, further in the text his definition of the miracle of instruction extends to other powers, such as vanishing, traveling through walls and space, diving in and out of the earth, hearing divine sounds, mind reading, recollection of past lives, etc.[3]

When confronted, Jesus refused to say under whose authority he was doing miracles.[4] However, he did them to bring glory to God and to help people.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”[5]

When Lazarus had died and Jesus heard about it he said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”[6] He said that in reference to the fact that he would raise him from the dead.

In a future blog, I’ll discuss some of the similarities, but in this blog, I’ll point out two major differences. Jesus fed and healed people. I know of no legends where Buddha did that.

Jesus fed people miraculously. On two occasions, he was moved with compassion on the crowds that came to hear him teach. He fed 5,000 people on five loaves of bread and two fish,[7] and He fed 4,000 people with seven loaves and a few fish.[8] On both occasions there were baskets full of leftover food, far more than they started with.

In the Gospels, 37 instances of healing are documented, and the Apostle John noted that there were many other things that Jesus did that weren’t written down. Jesus healed:

The Blind (5)

  1. Two blind men at Galilee[9]
  2. Blind man of Bethsaida[10]
  3. The Blind man at birth[11]
  4. Blind near Jericho[12]

Lepers (11)

  1. One leper[13]
  2. Ten lepers[14]

Paralytics (2)

  1. The Centurion’s Servant[15]
  2. At Capernaum[16]

Women (3)

  1. Peter’s mother-in-law (fever)[17]
  2. Woman with 12 years of bleeding[18]
  3. Infirm woman[19]

Men (6)

  1. With withered hand[20]
  2. Deaf-mute of Decapolis[21]
  3. Man with dropsy[22]
  4. At Gennesaret (many men)[23]
  5. Healing the ear of the servant of the High Priest in the Garden of Gethsemane[24]
  6. Invalid at Pool of Bethesda[25]

Exorcisms (7 major episodes)

  1. At Synagogue in Capernaum[26]
  2. A mute[27]
  3. At sunset (many)[28]
  4. Gerasenes demonic[29]
  5. Blind and mute man[30]
  6. Canaanites woman’s daughter[31]
  7. Boy possessed by a demon[32]

Resurrection of the dead (3) plus his own (1)

  1. Son of the Widow of Nain[33]
  2. Daughter of Jairus [34]
  3. Lazarus[35]
  4. Jesus[36]

Plus a reference to miracles not written about . . . [37]

When you add in His own resurrection, that is a total of 38 documented healings.

In general, Buddha’s miracles were pure demonstrations of power, and his teachings turn a person inward. Jesus’ miracles and teachings are demonstrations of miraculous compassion, meetings people’s needs and healing their bodies.


[1]Digha Nikaya: The Long Discourses (1997-2012), DN11 Kevatta (Kevaddha) Sutta: To Kevatta PTS: D i 211, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.11.0.than.html, retrieved December 17, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew 21:23-27.

[5] John 9:1-3 (NIV).

[6] John 11:4b (NKJV).

[7] Matthew 14:31-21, Mark 6:31-34, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:5-15.

[8] Matthew 15:32-39, Mark 8:1-9.

[9] Matthew 9:27-31.

[10] Mark 8:22-26.

[11] John 9:1-12.

[12] Matthew 20:29-34, Mark 10:46-52, Luke 18:35-43.

[13] Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, Luke 5:12-16.

[14] Luke 17:11-19.

[15] Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10, John 4:46-54.

[16] Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26.

[17] Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-34, Luke 4:38-41.

[18] Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:24-34, Luke 8:43-48.

[19] Luke 13:10-17.

[20] Matthew 12:9-13, Mark 3:1-6, Luke 6:6-11.

[21] Mark 7:31-37.

[22] Luke 14:1-6.

[23] Matthew 14:34-36, Mark 6:53-56.

[24] Luke 22:49-51.

[25] John 5:1-18.

[26] Mark 1:21-18 and Luke 4:37-37.

[27] Matthew 9:32-34.

[28] Matthew 8:16-17, Mark 1:32-34, Luke 4:40-41.

[29] Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39.

[30] Matthew 12:22-28, Mark 3:20-30, Luke 11:14-23.

[31] Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30.

[32] Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, Luke 9:37-49.

[33] Young man from Nain: Luke 7:11-17.

[34] Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56.

[35] John 11:1-44.

[36] Matthew 28:1-10, 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18.

[37] John 20:30 and 21:25.

Is Karma King?

Historian Will Durant defined karma as “that universal law by which every act of good or of evil will be rewarded or punished in this life, or in some later incarnation of the soul.”[1]  Belief in this law may have had its roots in the Jewish culture of Solomon’s time, or it may have been imported into Solomon’s culture from earlier or neighboring cultures.

The Law of Karma is not exactly the same in Judaism as it is in Hinduism and Buddhism. The different versions of the concept relate to differing beliefs about life after death. The Jewish style of application may have naturally shifted when transplanted to a Hindu culture as Hindus adapted it to their way of thinking and integrated it with their other beliefs.  Jews believed in a single life after death, if they believed in an afterlife at all, whereas Hindus believed in repeated reincarnation. It would have been an easy matter to extend the concept of good and bad consequences to the long view of many lives as opposed to one lifetime.

Hindus were captivated by the far-reaching implications of a belief in repeated reincarnation.  If you believe you are the reincarnation of a prior being, who could have been some kind of animal, and you are an heir to the good or bad karma of that prior being, you look at the tragedies and good fortunes of your life quite differently than if you did not believe you could have existed previously. To a Hindu, the misfortunes of this life are most likely the result of bad deeds from one of your prior lives.  Because of this belief, it is not uncommon in India for people to choose not to help someone who is struggling—to do so would be to interfere in the natural consequences of their bad karma.  Buddha disagreed with this perspective, calling his followers to help those in need—not to subvert the workings of karma, but to practice compassion for all sentient beings.

Buddha assumed reincarnation as a fact, not something to wonder about.  Karma is so key to Buddhism that Buddha’s first two proverbs in the Dhammapada highlight it:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.[2]

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.[3]

The apostle Paul also believed in karma: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”[4]

So it would seem that karma is king. If you can get Solomon, Buddha and Paul to agree on something, then it likely is so. However, Jesus made it clear that karma is not always king.

Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.[5]

Jesus then healed the man of his blindness, giving him sight for the first time in his life. Giving sight to the blind is cited in Isaiah 35:5-6 in the Old Testament as one of the miracles that the Messiah was prophesied to fulfill. So, his performance of this healing served as a witness that he was the Messiah. One of the times that karma is not king is when some higher purpose is being served than the basic working out of karma created by past actions.

We will see in the next upcoming blog article that there are many ways in which karma is not king, and that for the Christian, this is far more true than for the Buddhist. Just as an airplane transcends the law of gravity, by respecting yet overcoming its earthward pull, so the grace, mercy and forgiveness of God can overcome the debilitating drag of bad karma.


[1] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Part I: Our Oriental Heritage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 427.

[2] Dhammapada 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Galatians 6:7 (NKJV).

[5] John 9:1-3 (NKJV).