Two Paths to Liberation (Part 3)

Nature of Reality

Buddhists believe the universe always existed. Most Christians believe that God created the universe, either in the recent or distant past. Who or what is in charge of the universe? For Buddhists, everything is governed by karma. For Christians, God is in charge.

Buddha believed that one’s soul is an illusion. Christians believe that each person’s soul is very real and exists eternally, either in heaven or hell after one dies.

Buddhists believe that virtually everything is determined by karma. The only real exception is that one can attain enlightenment and cease existing, whereby karma is no longer in control. To Christians, free will is pervasive. Even though God governs, He does not force His will on human beings, except perhaps in God’s determination of each person’s eternal state (i.e., heaven/hell).

To the Buddhist, nothing exists permanently except the state of Nirvana, or total emptiness. For the Christian, God, heaven and hell, and the souls of every person are permanent.

Both Buddhists and Christians believe in life after death. However, in Buddhism, one reincarnates and returns to earth as either a person or animal. Christians believe in eternal life after just one life on earth, which will be spent either in heaven or hell.

The desired ultimate spiritual state of the Buddhist is enlightenment, enabling entrance into the state of Nirvana. The desired ultimate spiritual state of the Christian is life in heaven, to be experienced by all who have been saved.

                                 Buddhism Christianity
Universe created? Universe always existed Universe created by God
Who/What is in Charge? Karma God (Father, Son, Spirit)
Your soul Is an illusion Is very real & eternal
Free will Very little Pervasive
What is permanent? Nothing except Nirvana (a state of total emptiness) God, heaven/hell & the souls of every person
Life after death? Repeated reincarnation (could return as an animal) Resurrection
Desired ultimate spiritual state Enlightenment (Nirvana) Salvation (destined for heaven)





Two Paths to Liberation (Part 2)

Spiritual Growth

What is the source of truth? Buddhists looks deep within themselves by trying to exclude all outside voices. Christians do not trust what their inner selves may be saying, believing that all truth comes from God above.

Who is at the center of one’s life, spiritually? With the Buddhist, it is the self. With the Christian, it is the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

Whether or not God exists, God is not relevant to the process of spiritual growth for the Buddhist. What is essential and critical, is the self. For the Christian, God’s role in spiritual growth is always essential and critical. The directive, “Let go and let God” is key to the spiritual growth of the Christian.

Spiritual growth for the Buddhist is a quest of the self to eliminate itself. The Buddhist is striving to engage in a process of spiritual bootstrapping. For the Christian, spiritual growth requires the self to submit to the authority and leadership of God. God causes spiritual growth when the Christian submits to His inspiration and direction.

The lifeblood of Buddhist spiritual growth requires prolonged, intensive meditation, often interspersed with chanting. For the Christian, Bible study, prayer and worship are essential activities.

                                 Buddhism Christianity
Source of Truth Deep within From above (God)
At the Center Self God
Existence of God Not relevant Totally essential
Self Self seeks to eliminate self Self subordinated to God
Source of Spiritual Growth Spiritual bootstrapping God enables when we submit
Lifeblood of spiritual growth Meditation & chanting Worship, Bible study & prayer

Two Paths to Liberation (Part 1)

Paths to Liberation

This world is a difficult place, from which people throughout history have sought relief and liberation. Two major paths to liberation, Buddhism and Christianity, will be compared in this five part series.

What each path holds out as model behavior toward others is virtually the same. Each challenge us to overcome hatred with love and to seek to banish negative thoughts by intentionally focusing on positive thoughts. However, each claimed to be the only true path to liberation. To Buddha, intense, prolonged meditation is the only way. In Christianity, faith in Jesus (apart from good deeds) is the only way to salvation.

Buddhism is a system of self-improvement directed and implemented by the self. The problem is that self-improvement tends to be very slow. It took the Buddha billions of lifetimes to reach perfection and become enlightened. By his own admission, the Dalai Lama has not yet attained enlightenment. If he hasn’t made it, who has?

The Buddha modeled ideal behavior, having achieved perfection. He thereby became enlightened and entered nirvana. Upon death, he left this earth, never to return. After his crucifixion and burial, Jesus rose from the dead and made at least a dozen different appearances, being seen by over 500 people. He then ascended into heaven, where he is alive today and in active communication and interaction with many of his followers.

Because of these differences, the number of Buddhists who have claimed to reach enlightenment and nirvana is very small. In contrast, the number of Christians who claim to have been liberated (i.e., saved) is in the hundreds of millions. However, we should not assume that anyone calling themselves a Christian is following Jesus. Jesus clearly stated that he never knew many of his followers.

This dramatic difference in the accessibility of liberation is due to the central role of mercy and grace in Christianity. Mercy is not receiving the punishment we deserve for bad deeds and thoughts. Grace is receiving blessings that we in no way deserve. Neither mercy nor grace are available in Buddhism because the universe is tightly governed by karma. Karma precludes mercy as well as grace.

Precautions should be noted for each path. Buddhism requires, at a bare minimum, many months of intense, prolonged meditation. When Westerners attempt this, the result is often depression because people in the West are conditioned to avoid self-denial.

Christians can easily fall into having judgmental attitudes toward others. It is best for religion and politics to be kept separate, and not to be intertwined.

The following chart summarizes the above narrative.

                                 Buddhism Christianity
One way? Intense, prolonged meditation is the only way Jesus is the only way
Basis of liberation Good thoughts & deeds Faith in Christ
Mercy and Grace Non-existent Abundantly available
Liberation slow/quick? Slow. Buddha lived billions of lifetimes. Dalai Lama not yet liberated. Often quick. Key is letting go and letting God.
How many claim liberation? A few hundred Hundreds of millions
Precautions After months of meditation, depression is not unusual Need to avoid judgmental words and attitudes, and linking politics and religion


Barbara Walter’s Interview of the Dalai Lama

Seven years ago Barbara Walters interviewed the Dalai Lama. The interview is available on You Tube (9:17).

The interview covers an amazing amount of ground about Buddhism and His Holiness. It showcases his no-nonsense, disarming humility and his endearing giggle. The interview leaves the viewer with a clear sense of why he is admired and revered by hundreds of millions.

The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is believed to be the 14th incarnation of The Buddha (Gautama Buddha). He is often referred to as the “heavenly deity of compassion and wisdom.” Many Buddhists believe he is a god. When questioned by Walters, he denied being a deity, saying he is a teacher. He laughed and commented that he had an eye irritation and that shouldn’t happen if he is a god.

Walters described him as “the world’s foremost scholar in his very complex faith.” Buddhists do not believe in God the way Christians do, but they do believe some kind of heaven exists. Ancient Tibetan texts describe six distinct levels of heaven and six nightmarish levels of hell. When asked about the Buddhist vision of heaven, he described it as a very happy, very pleasant place, the best place to refine one’s practice of Buddhism.

For Buddhists, heaven is not a destination, but a place to visit temporarily. A place to go to continue to reincarnate until they become a buddha (enlightened one). Good compassionate people reincarnate as people, and bad people as animals. For example, a good dog may reincarnate as a person, and a bad person as a dog. From the Buddhist point of view, everyone is reborn (reincarnated) repeatedly.

As a three-year-old, he underwent testing before he was proclaimed the 14th Dalai Lama. During the testing, he pointed to objects that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. He said as a child he had clear memories of a past life, but now he does not.

Walters explained that Buddhists believe the ultimate goal is nirvana or enlightenment, which is a state of all-knowing contentment. The Dalai Lama explained that once you eliminate all negative emotions, you automatically become enlightened and enter Nirvana. Walters asked him, are you enlightened? He answered no. He said he does not know what will happen tonight, and that he is having trouble with his memory. He added, if he was enlightened, he would not be forgetful. He said he sees himself as just another human being, nothing special, nothing more. It is this humility that endears him to so many.

Gyatso is the first Dalai Lama ever to travel outside of Tibet. He is an ambassador of Buddhism recognized world-wide as a symbol of compassionate, non-violent living. Before an audience of 65,000 people in New York’s Central Park, Richard Gere introduced him as “one of the great beings perhaps to ever walk on this planet. . . .”

Walters asked the Dalai Lama what the purpose of life is, and he replied that the purpose is to be happy and is accomplished by warm-heartedness. That compassion gives inner strength, and changes our attitudes and the way we see things. When asked if the world is closer to heaven or to hell, he replied closer to heaven.

Moved by the time with him, Walters concluded her time with him by requesting if she could kiss him on his cheek. He permitted it and giggled. Then he showed her a New Zealand kiss and touched noses with her.

The interview raised some key concerns about the efficacy of Buddhism as a path to enlightenment and nirvana. If the Dalai Lama has not attained enlightenment, then who has? Attaining enlightenment is the only real way to be liberated from the suffering of this world, and from repeatedly being reincarnated into that same world of suffering. Only a very small number of Buddhists have “made it,” even in the 2,500 years that Buddhism has existed as a religion. This stands in sharp contrast to Christianity and Islam, where a high percentage of adherents believe that they will be freed from suffering when they enter heaven (or paradise). The difference is that in these two theistic religions, God (or Allah) is believed to do what no human being can—provide a way of liberation from this very troublesome world and the great limitations that plague all human beings.

If the Dalai Lama is “just another human being, nothing special, nothing more,” and is not enlightened, then is he really qualified to speak with such authority as a teacher? While his humility is disarming, it is also unsettling.

All this reminds me of the painfully honest confession of Bruce Newman, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism. He noted,

When I look back on my twenty-three years of practice, I can’t but help but feel deeply disappointed by how little progress I’ve made in my meditation. In a sense, I’ve done most things right—I’ve played by the book, so to speak. Why then have the experiences of meditation, so tantalizing, been beyond my reach? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if nothing has happened; it’s just that progress has been painfully slow.[i]

While one may question the efficacy of sudden conversions in Christianity for many of its faltering followers, we also encounter many Christians who dramatically changed for the better overnight, or nearly so. This phenomenon is absent in Buddhism, where spiritual growth is “painfully slow.”


[i] Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism, (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lions Prod., 2004), 71.

Forgiveness in Christianity and Buddhism

Joseph S. O’Leary has written a blog on “Buddhism and Forgiveness.”[i] He writes in an effort to come up with a solution for the ongoing hatred and violence in Northern Ireland, and he believes that the solution lies in Buddhism’s attitudes about forgiveness and not in Christianity’s.

O’Leary writes,

Christianity is based on the idea, or rather the event, of divine forgiveness: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself’ (2 Cor. 5.19). That is correlated with mutual forgiveness between human beings: ‘Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Eph. 4.32). . . .

O’Leary goes to comment that in Christianity to be “set right” one must be right with God and with one another. He states that the result ought to be, “the construction of a loving community.” He then poses the question:

Why was this gracious reality so little actualized in Northern Ireland? Even now, when a measure of rational political coexistence has been achieved, there is little cordiality or friendship between the Christian communities of the area.

He then proposes that the solution may be found in Buddhist thought. O’Leary expounds on a preemptive form of forgiveness, by not taking offense in the first place, regardless of the infraction against the person.

The emphasis falls not on forgiving but on the foolishness of taking offence in the first place:

’He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ – in those who harbor [sic] such thoughts hatred will never cease.

’He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ – in those who do not harbour [sic] such thoughts hatred will cease. (Dhammapada 1.3-4; trans. Radhakrishnan)

Harboring thoughts and memories of abuses is discouraged, and the realization that each of us is a flawed person, temporarily residing on this earth, is encouraged. If such mental purity could be fully realized, peace can occur. However, attaining such purity has been a very rare, if not impossible thing to maintain.

An underlying assumption in the article is that because the people of Northern Ireland are predominantly Catholic and Protestant that Christianity itself must be faulty, rather than the problem of violence and unforgiveness stemming from the exercise of free will.

The assertion that Buddhist teaching on forgiveness is more effective presupposes that Buddhist countries are strangers to violence. History indicates otherwise. See “Violent Intolerance in Buddhist Burma.”[ii]

[i] Joseph S. O’Leary, “Buddhism and Forgiveness,” retrieved March 18, 2014. All quoted sections of O’Leary’s blog retain his reference notes. The East West Insights blog focuses on the section entitled “Buddhist Approaches to Forgiveness.”

[ii] R. E. Sherman, “Violent Intolerance in Buddhist Burma,” East West Insights, June 10, 2013.

Different Concepts of Hell

A common misconception is that Buddhists do not believe in hell. While this may be true of some Buddhists, the Buddha offered specific teachings about hell.

In “Devaduta Sutta”, the 130th discourse of the Majjhima Nikaya, Buddha teaches about the hell in vivid detail. Buddhism teaches that there are five (sometimes six) realms of rebirth, which can then be further subdivided into degrees of agony or pleasure. Of these realms, the hell realms, or Naraka, is the lowest realm of rebirth. Of the hell realms, the worst is Avīci or “endless suffering”. The Buddha’s disciple, Devadatta, who tried to kill the Buddha on three occasions, as well as create a schism in the monastic order, is said to have been reborn in the Avici Hell.

However, like all realms of rebirth, rebirth in the Hell realms is not permanent, though suffering can persist for eons before being reborn again. . . . Buddhism teaches to escape the endless migration of rebirths (both positive and negative) through the attainment of Nirvana.[i]


The Narakas of Buddhism are closely related to diyu, the hell in Chinese mythology. A Naraka differs from the hells of Abrahamic religions in two respects: firstly, beings are not sent to Naraka as the result of a divine judgment and punishment; secondly, the length of a being’s stay in a Naraka is not eternal, though it is usually very long.

A being is born into a Naraka as a direct result of his or her accumulated karma and resides there for a finite period of time until that karma has achieved its full result. After his or her karma is used up, he or she will be reborn in one of the higher worlds as the result of karma that had not yet ripened. . . . Physically, Narakas are thought of as a series of cavernous layers which extend below Jambudvīpa (the ordinary human world) into the earth. There are several schemes for enumerating these Narakas and describing their torments.[ii]


Buddhist hell (naraka) in Burmese representation.[iii]

Ngaye (Naraka) in Burmese art

In Dante’s Inferno, he detailed his belief in nine distinct different levels of hell (see image below).[i]

Dante's Inferno: Levels of Hell

Conservative Christians beliefs about hell are well summarized in this excerpt from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible.

While the duration of punishment in hell is eternal for all who have chosen that destiny for themselves, there are degrees of punishment proportional to the degrees of guilt of each individual. Only God is able to determine what those degrees are, and he will assign the consequences with perfect justice according to the responsibility of each one. Evidence of such gradations in future punishment is found in Scripture (Mt 11:20-24, Lk 12:47-48, Rv 20:12,13; cf. Ez 16:48-61). An obvious comparison is made in these texts between the differing intensities of punishment that are involved in the contrasting privileges, knowledge, and opportunities.[i]

The Buddha taught in his First Noble Truth that “life is suffering”. His view of life on earth seems similar to Dante’s portrayal of the First or Second levels of hell.

[i] Walter A. Elwell, General Editor. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1988), Vol. A-I, 955.

[i] “Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno,” Bing, retrieved February 25, 2014.

[i] “Hell in Buddhism,” Wikipedia, retrieved February 25, 2014.

[ii] “Naraka,” Wikipedia, retrieved February 25, 2014.

[iii] “Ngaye (Nakara) in Burmese Art.” Wikipedia, retrieved February 25, 2014.

Where was God in the Philippines?

In early November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest typhoon ever to hit the Philippines, struck and killed approximately 5,982 people. Assessed as a Category 5-equivalent super typhoon on the Saffir Simpson hurricane wind scale, it reached a maximum of 196 mph. Estimated to be the fourth most intense tropical cyclone ever observed, UN officials believe 11 million people have been affected and many are left homeless.[1]

Buddhists, Atheists, and Christians view catastrophic events differently.

A Buddhist viewpoint would be that life is impermanent, and that we ought to treasure every moment. In view of typhoon Haiyan, Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh said,

This is the best that we can do for those who have died: We can live in such a way that they can feel they are continuing to live in us, more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, tasting every minute of life available to us, for them.[2]

For atheists, cataclysmic storms are regarded as proof that God does not exist. Following Japan’s tsunami, author and activist Sam Harris said,

Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil or imaginary. . . . Take your pick, and choose wisely.[3]

It takes a real measure of chutzpah to stand in judgment of God, as Harris does. In the Book of Job, God asked Job questions such as whether it was Job’s place to correct Him, or are His ways inscrutable and mysterious?

The Lord said to Job:

“Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!”

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.”

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm:

“Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

“Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
Do you have an arm like God’s,
and can your voice thunder like his?
Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
Unleash the fury of your wrath,
look at all who are proud and bring them low,
look at all who are proud and humble them,
crush the wicked where they stand.
Bury them all in the dust together;
shroud their faces in the grave.
Then I myself will admit to you
that your own right hand can save you.[4]

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.[5]

Human beings are very presumptuous. We expect a well-ordered universe that caters to our personal preferences. The truth is that we should be grateful that, against all odds, the earth presents an environment that is generally habitable, and often favorable, to human well being. That the earth is so is the result of a mind boggling series of “just right” characteristics of the environment earth provides for us.

Consider the following:

  • Temperature: Human beings, animals and plants can only survive in a limited temperature range. To maintain the needed range, the earth is the right distance from the sun, and the sun is relatively stable.
  • Atmosphere: The earth’s atmosphere is about 100 miles thick. This protects the surface of the earth from radiation. The needed ratio of oxygen to other gasses in the air is present for sustaining life.
  • Energy: Light from the sun provides the energy for chemical reactions in cells necessary for life.
  • Nutrients: The chemical composition of earth is conducive to nourishing life.
  • Water: All life requires water to exist. In addition to drinking water, there is the appropriate ratio of ocean water to earth.
  • Location: Due to earth’s location in the solar system, Jupiter acts as a guard for the earth, protecting it from constant bombardment of asteroid and comet strikes.[6]

We forget that all of these result in a range and mix of weather which produces a nurturing environment for vegetation and animals. Weather variation is a part of this, including rare extremes. All these characteristics were staged and set in motion by God.

God designed the Garden of Eden as an ideal place for people to dwell where typhoons would never occur and only asked that we not eat one type of fruit in the garden. Mankind chose to opt out of this idyllic existence to “do it our own way.” God backed off, permitting us to be exposed to the challenges and risks of living on this earth. God is still present, but God doesn’t force himself on anyone. God waits patiently for us to turn to God individually when we realize that we are far from sufficient in and of ourselves.

In 2 Corinthians, we are reminded to be grateful that God comforts us during difficult and tragic times, so that we can comfort others, and that when we are steadfast in faith and partake of sufferings, we will also partake of the consolation to come.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.[7]

Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor, poses the following questions,

How should we make sense of such senseless death and destruction? Was God in the whirlwind itself, as the Bible hints, or present only in the aftermath, as people mobilize to provide food, water and shelter?[8]

Perhaps God is in it all. He is in the whirlwind, which is part of the amazing earth He created, and He is present in the aftermath of a devastating storm. We can be like His hands and feet when we provide food, water and shelter, and comfort those who suffer.


[1] “Typhoon Haiyan,”, retrieved December 12, 2013.

[2] Daniel Burke, “Where was God in the Philippines?” CNN Belief Blog, retrieved December 12, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Job 40:1-14 (NIV).

[5] Job 42:3 (NIV).

[6] “What Makes a World Habitable?” Lunar and Planetary Institute, and “What is it about Earth that makes it just right for life?”, retrieved December 16, 2013.

[7] 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (NIV).

[8] Daniel Burke, “Where was God in the Philippines?” CNN Belief Blog, retrieved December 12, 2013.

Wrathful Deities

Across many religions is the belief in demons, or malevolent spirits that may do harm or inhabit a person, resulting in the need for exorcism. Some believe that they may be the spirits of the recently deceased, returned to earth to take care of the unfinished business of their lives. So, when one sees the statues or images of the wrathful deities of Buddhism, one might automatically assume they are demons.

Demons and Idols

A demon is a malevolent, disembodied spirit. These may be the spirit of a deceased person, of a fallen angel, or a spirit which possesses a person, resulting in the need for exorcism. In Judaism and Christianity, a demon is an unclean spirit. They may be summoned and possibly controlled.[1]

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus healed the demon-possessed. One example is in Mark 5:1-20, where Jesus drove out a legion of demons from a man who had been cruelly plagued with them for years.

This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.[2]

The demons, called Legion, begged to be sent into a herd of pigs. The pigs then raced down into a lake and were drowned.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis [the Ten Cities] how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.[3]

The Apostle Paul warned against sacrificing to idols or worshiping them, and against having anything to do with demons.

Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.[4]

And he admonished that,

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.[5]

The Apostle John wrote that during the End Times,

The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk.[6]


In Tibetan Buddhism, wrathful deities are “enlightened beings”[7] that are ferocious in appearance. These personifications of evil are meant to protect and to assist sentient beings into enlightenment, as well as symbolize the effort it takes to overcome evil. They are considered:

. . . benevolent gods who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil, the violence that is a fundamental reality of the cosmos and the human mind and protect the faithful by instilling terror in evil spirits.[8]


The worship of wrathful deities began in the 8th century. The magician-saint Padmasambhava is believed to have conquered them and forced them to act as protectors of Buddhists and the Buddhist faith. Hinduism is the source of some of the deities.[9]

Hinduism includes numerous varieties of spirits that might be classified as demons, including Vetalas, Bhutas and Pishachas. Rakshasas and Asuras are often also taken as demons.[10]


Images or statues of the wrathful deities, which are ferocious and hideous in appearance, are used to protect Buddhists from evil influences, and as a reminder to eliminate passion and evil in their lives. They are meant to frighten evil spirits, and to be “roosting places”[11] or temporary dwellings for evil energies to reside in. The evil energy is sent into them through the use of mantras.

These icons can be in the form of masks, scrolls (paintings), or sculptures, generally depicting the deity with short, thick limbs, a great number of hands and feet, and several heads, with a third eye and disheveled hair. Atop their heads they wear crowns made from skulls or severed heads. They may be treading on animals. Their wrathful expression may be an angry smile, which includes long fangs. From their noses may be a “mist of illnesses”[12] like a terrific storm blowing.


Some of the wrathful deities fall into three categories, the Herukas (promoting detachment from the world of ignorance), the Wisdom Kings (protectors of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, a feature of Japanese rather than Tibetan Buddhism), and the Protectors (protectors of one of the three: the World, a Region or the Law).[13]

Initiations (Empowerments)

Initiation or empowerment ceremonies are conducted to confer the blessings of a particular deity and to authorize a follower into the various stages of meditation specific to or associated with a particular deity. A highly respected lama conducts the elaborate ceremony. The empowerments are directed at three specific areas, the body, speech and mind, and involve taking extensive vows. These are not to be undertaken lightly, as Bruce Newman warns in his book, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: Notes from a Practitioner’s Journey. He calls it the “point of no ‘return.'”[14]


Two types of offerings may be made to the deities. “External” offerings are made in the form of

. . . a cemetary [sic] flower, incense of singed flesh, lamp burning human fat (or a substitute), scent of bile, blood (usually symbolized by red water) and human flesh (usually symbolized by parched barley flour and butter realistically colored and modeled).[15]

“Internal” offerings are made in the form of

. . . a skull cup containing a heart, tongue, nose, pair of eyes, and pair of ears. In Tibetan texts, these are human organs, but in actual ceremonies barley-flour-and-butter replicas are used instead.[16]

Demons or Protectors?

For the Buddhist, wrathful deities can be likened to big, scary bodyguards standing watch over their path to enlightenment, and the statues or representations are repositories for evil, but from the Judeo/Christian point of view, these deities embody the earmarks of a demon, not to be sacrificed to, worshiped or followed.

[1] “Demon,”, retrieved October 22, 2013.

[2] Mark 5:3:5 (NIV).

[3] Mark 5:18-20 (NIV).

[4] 1 Corinthians 10:19-21 (NIV).

[5] 1 Timothy 4:1 (NIV).

[6] Revelation 9:20 (NIV).

[7] “Wrathful Deities,”, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[8] “Wrathful Deities,”, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Demon: Hinduism,”, retrieved October 22, 2013.

[11] Nitin Kumar. “Wrathful Guardians of Buddhism: Aesthetics and Mythology,”, February 2001, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Wrathful Deities,”, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[14] Bruce Newman. A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: Notes from a Practitioner’s Journey. (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 31, 35, 38.

[15] “Wrathful Deities,”, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[16] Ibid.

Recovering From Doing Something Really Bad

Suppose you have stolen a large sum of money or physically harmed someone or even killed someone. What then? Buddhism and Christianity differ sharply over how an individual can deal positively with life once they have committed a seriously negative act.

The Christian solution is simple and rapid. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”[1] We turn to God in anguish, sorrowfully admitting what we have done, strongly desiring to radically change, and He will forgive us for that act and will purify us. Before God you are fully absolved. However, you may still need to serve time, but at least your conscience will have been cleared.

The Buddhist approach is slow and arduous. It is detailed on the website, where the question is asked, “If we have committed a serious negative act, how can we let go of the feeling of guilt that may follow?” His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, provides the following answer:[2]

A: In such situations, where there is a danger of feeling guilty and therefore depressed, the Buddhist point of view advises adopting certain ways of thinking and behaving which will enable you to recover your self-confidence. A Buddhist may reflect on the nature of the mind of a Buddha, on its essential purity, and in what way disturbing thoughts and their subsequent emotions are of an entirely different nature. Because such disturbing emotions are adventitious, they can be eliminated. To think of the immense well of potential hidden deep within our being, to understand that the nature of the mind is fundamental purity and kindness and to meditate on its luminosity, will enable you to develop self-confidence and courage.

The Buddha says in the Sutras that fully enlightened and omniscient beings, whom we consider to be superior, did not spring from the bowels of the earth, nor did they fall from the sky; they are the result of spiritual purification. Such beings were once as troubled as we are now, with the same weaknesses and flaws of ordinary beings. Shakyamuni Buddha himself, prior to his enlightenment, lived in other incarnations that were far more difficult than our present lives. To recognize, in all its majesty, our own potential for spiritual perfection is an antidote to guilt, disgust, and hopelessness. Nagarjuna says in “The Precious Garland of Advice for the King” that pessimism and depression never help in finding a good solution to any problem. On the other hand, arrogance is just as negative. But to present as an antidote to it a posture of extreme humility may tend to foster a lack of self-confidence and open the door to depression and discouragement. We would only go from one extreme to the other.

I would like to point out that to set out on a retreat for three years full of hope and expectations, thinking that without the slightest difficulty you will come Out of it fully enlightened, can turn into a disaster, unless you undertake it with the most serious intentions. If you overestimate your expectations and have too much self-confidence, you will be headed for dissatisfaction and disillusionment. When you think of what the Buddha said–that perfect enlightenment is the result of spiritual purification and an accumulation of virtues and wisdom for eons and eons—it is certain that courage and perseverance will arise to accompany you on the path.

The Dalai Lama’s answer is convoluted. In all honesty, it is not terribly comforting. It is clear that prolonged, intense meditation is one critical element in the recovery process. And, each person must struggle through on their own, with the help of the inspiration of the example of the Buddha, to a place of greater mental purity.

That some very exceptional Buddhists have accomplished this during one lifetime is potentially believable. That those who are ordinary individuals have a reasonable hope of implementing this is questionable, particularly if they are burdened, not only with one seriously negative act, but with several, or with a host of minor negative acts or attitudes. For such people, even eons and eons may not allow enough time for recovery to arise by self-generation. It would be much like trying to swim upstream in a river that is flowing at a speed greater than the swimmer can manage and sustain. There might be bursts of temporary success, but fatigue will inevitably bring defeat.

The Bible openly discounts the possibility of self-generated recovery.

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”[3]

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[4]

These two Bible verses might seem to be hopelessly discouraging. And they are, until the help of God is received and allowed to rejuvenate and rescue the foundering. The power of a Higher Power should not be underestimated.

[1] 1 John 1:9 (NIV).

[2] “Christianity and Buddhism, 10 virtues of Buddhism, guilt feelings,”, retrieved October 21, 2013.

[3] Isaiah 64:6 (NIV).

[4] Romans 3:23 (NKJV).

Bach’s Legacy in Japan

Monists believe that all is one. So they look for truth within themselves, since they believe they are a central part of a universal whole. Dualists look for truth outside of themselves—for example, to a sacred book, to a specific church, or by direct appeal to a personal God far superior to themselves.

The life and worship of a dualist is rich and varied because it involves the interaction of a human soul with something other than itself. In the case of Christianity, this interaction is with a personal God who loves every human being and desires to be actively involved in each person’s life. To the extent that any individual is willing to invite God into his or her life, that individual will experience an intimate relationship with him. If someone who is not a dualist believes in God, that God is impersonal. Hence the degree of richness of religion as an exercise of man relating to God is much greater for the dualist than for the monist, much as life in a world with both men and women is much richer than one in a society consisting only of men or only of women. The apostle Paul referred to the church as the bride of Christ.[1]

Buddhism has not inspired great works of music, such as Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s B Minor Mass, or the large body of hymns and songs of worship present within Christianity. Such works are expressions of individual people with their own personalities who were inspired by their interaction with a personal God. The chants and meditations of a Buddhist, in contrast, are designed to help the seeker to transcend self and to minimize or eliminate personal identity.[2]

In Japan, Bach’s music has been growing in popularity, with remarkable results. Former Buddhist Yuko Maruyama says she is a Christian thanks to Bach’s music. “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus and Christianity. . . . When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God.” Masashi Masuda, now a Jesuit priest, says, “Listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations first aroused my interest in Christianity.”[3]

Why would listening to Bach’s music from the 18th century trigger a religious response in modern day Japanese people? A St. Louis mathematics professor, Charles Ford, has a theory. He believes that Bach’s music is composed in the “perfect beauty of order” to which the Japanese mind is receptive. “Bach has had the same effect on me, a Western scientist.”[4]

As the founder and conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki’s performances are always sold out, even with ticket prices of more than $600. Suzuki said, “Bach works as a missionary among our people. . . . After each concert people crowd the podium wishing to talk to me about topics that are normally taboo in our society—death, for example. They inevitably ask me what ‘hope’ means to Christians. . . . I believe that Bach has already converted tens of thousands of Japanese to the Christian faith.”[5] Susuki says, “I am spreading Bach’s message, which is a biblical one.”[6] Bach’s cantatas have even been referred to as “the fifth gospel,”[7] and a Lutheran theologian, Yoshikazu Tokuzen calls Bach’s music, “a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.”[8]

As a result of Bach concerts, many young Japanese are making pilgrimages to Leipzig, Germany, where Bach worked for the last 27 years of his life. He died in 1750. There they visit the church where Bach was a cantor and listen to Lutheran liturgy.[9]

According to Uwe Siemon-Netto, a foreign correspondent based in New York City, “Two-thirds of all Japanese profess no religion. However, of this vast majority 70 percent deem religion important for society.”[10] As musical director of Concordia’s Bach at the Sem concert series, Rev. Robert Bergt has personal experience with the effect of Bach on the Japanese. “Some of these people would then in private declare themselves as ‘closet Christians. . . . This happened to me at least 15 times. And one of them I eventually baptized myself.” Siemon-Netto concludes that, “While only one percent of Japan’s population of 128 million is officially Christian, Bergt estimated that the real figure could be three times as high if one includes secret believers.”[11]

[1] Ephesians 5:23–32.

[2] R. E. Sherman, Buddha and Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link? (Charleston: CreateSpace, 2011) 222-223.

[3] Uwe Siemon-Netto, “Bach in Japan,”, retrieved August 26, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), 267.

[6] Uwe Siemon-Netto, “Bach in Japan,”, retrieved August 26, 2013.

[7] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), 268.

[8] Uwe Siemon-Netto , “Bach in Japan,”, retrieved August 26, 2013.

[9] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), 267-268.

[10] Uwe Siemon-Netto, ”J. S. Bach in Japan,”, retrieved September 5, 2013.

[11] Uwe Siemon-Netto, “Bach in Japan,”, retrieved August 26, 2013.