Buddhism & Christianity: Thought Provoking Analogies

Christian apologist C. S. Lewis[1] once observed that the spiritual life of a Christian is like the opportunities and risks available to an egg.  If an egg never advances beyond just being an egg, it will rot and decay.  It is designed to hatch, become a bird, and take flight.  A major problem with Christianity is that too many of its followers:

  1. never really break out of their shell, or
  2. if they do, they don’t spread their wings, or
  3. if they do, they try to fly by relying on their own power and direction.

The third option is much like a bird leaping from a tree branch without spreading its wings. It will plummet even though it wants to fly. The opportunity to receive the uplifting wind of the Holy Spirit is always available, but it requires not only an initial leap of faith but also the ongoing, moment-by-moment surrender of one’s life to God.  Without that surrender, the believer’s behavior can easily become a blight on the reputation of Christianity.

Practicing Buddhism is much like swimming,[2] while attempting to be a Christian is like flying. If a way can be found to fly safely, it is a more efficient way of getting around.  However, an air crash draws much more attention than a drowning.  Like meditation, swimming is incredibly repetitive and inward focused.  Like seeking the direction in which the spirit of God is leading you as a Christian, the flying bird can easily be blown this way or that by puffs of wind.

Initially, the Buddhist aspirant is hopeful of experiencing substantive empowerment and freedom from suffering.  Practicing deep, prolonged meditation can noticeably reduce stress levels and have a calming effect. So far, so good. After a while, however, another reality begins to set in.  Making progress spiritually as a Buddhist is very slow—to the point where the feasibility of achieving liberation comes into question.  To use the swimming analogy, it is often refreshing initially to dive into the water and begin swimming.  However, attaining enlightenment is much like swimming the 26 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island.  Most can swim out from the shoreline and make progress for a while, but only a very select few have trained to the point where they can go the distance. And so it is that while Buddhism has initial appeal, over the long run at most a select few seekers somehow endure to the end, hoping to attain enlightenment. It is all a very conscious, concerted act of the will.

Christians would argue that becoming liberated (i.e., saved) by sheer human effort is not possible.  It would be like swimming from California to Hawaii.  No one, by good works, can traverse the 2,400 miles of ocean to get there. Rather, becoming saved is like entrusting yourself to a ship or jet to transport you there.  You have to board, committing yourself to the entire journey.  You can’t wander out on the wings during flight, or dive into the ocean for a bit to swim part of the way.

And so we see that in some ways these two great religions are quite different. Each has easy  as well as challenging aspects.

[1] “Coming In Out of the Wind,” July 8 reading, in C. S. Lewis, A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works, edited by Patricia S. Klein (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003), 208.[2] Buddha used this analogy when describing his path, referring to it as “entering the stream.” Dhammapada 178, in Harischandra Kaviratna, trans., Dhammapada, Wisdom of the Buddha, 1980, Theosophical University Press Online, retrieved October 5, 2011.